Reviving the student movement

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One of the sectors of society most active in these marches and rallies have been college students. The Red Card Student Marching Delegation organizes unaffiliated college students on campuses. Many unaffiliated students attend the rallies and marches on their own or not all. The Red Card Student Marching delegation creates a space for students to march together under a common banner and get to know one another in the process. On Nov. 18, Song Dae-Han and Gavin Huang interviewed one of its lead organizers, Kim Hyun-woo, a Korea University student of Sociology. What have your organizing efforts to call for President Park’s resignation looked like? It started in September after a big report about corruption surrounding President Park through JTBC and other media. Many people were going on demonstration and marches demanding her resignation. Frankly speaking, college students today aren’t like the college students of the 1980s or 90s[ref] The 1980s and 90s marked the heyday of Korea’s student movement. Students led the protests and struggle to end the dictatorship and achieve direct presidential elections.[/ref]. Many students these days don’t know what to do in these protests. We thought we needed to organize and help them protest and get their voices heard. That’s why we started the Red Card Student Marching Delegation. So we have been campaigning in more than 10 colleges in Seoul.

You have been organizing students to the Nov. 12 mobilization. How many students showed up? Did you consider it a success? Almost 50 college students showed up. Many of them came through our offline campus outreach as well as by signing up online. It was fascinating to see students from so many different colleges in one space. Yet, we still need to organize many more students. While the student councils are actively participating on this issue, many students feel detached from them. Students view these student councils as too into the movement or as being too political. They don’t see them as “pure.” Yet, for us it’s not about politics or about being pure, it’s about defending the basic elements of democracy. We are organizing students for two reasons: to get them to participate in the protests and demonstrations but also to organize them into a broader progressive movement. In both regards, I wasn’t completely satisfied.

What has been the reaction of college students to your campaign? It differs by college. At Dongguk University, they were very curious and interested about us. At Korea University, there are lots of student movements and campaigning. Since they are used to it, they weren’t that interested in us. In the case of Kyunghee University, I liked doing it there, because many students were interested and signed up even though its campus also has a lot of student organizations.

There are many in the 386 generation[ref] The 386 generation was coined in the 90s for people that at that time were in their 30s represented by the 3, had gone to college in the tumultuous 80s represented by the 8, and were born in the 60s represented by the 6.[/ref] that are critical of the student movement today. What is your response? The student movement is in its current state because of them. So, I blame them. But pointing a finger at them is not so important in organizing. We should look back at that time, and not repeat their shortcomings. However, just blaming us for the current state of the student movement is unreasonable. I want to also hold them responsible for compromising their values and not being progressive.

How can students change things now? There are thirty year periods in the struggle for regime change. There was April 19 in 1960[ref] In April 19 of 1960, large protests led by students against electoral fraud by the Synghman Rhee government led to its resignation.[/ref]; there was another big movement in 1980 and 1987[ref] 1980 was the Gwangju Uprising against the reinstatement of dictatorship after a brief democratic spring following the assassination of Dictator-president Park Chung Hee. The protests were sparked by students. 1987 marked the large scale mobilizations led by college students that brought about direct presidential elections.[/ref], and now 30 years later, we are at the start of another period. I think we are at a very important time. It’s surrealistic. We can organize and restart the student movement again.

What would happen after President Park steps down? Her resignation would be a big chance to achieve everything people desire. The interim cabinet cannot but follow people’s demands. I think people will get back their voices and fight for it. For college students, one very important issue is 1/2 price tuition. I think there would be a high chance of achieving that. Everyone agrees that tuition should be lowered. The Park administration simply pretended like they were implementing half price tuition by providing some funding and scholarships.

In Korea, college education is basically mandatory. It’s not a choice. 80% of High School students go to college, so there is no reason why students should pay so much. If a college degree offered a bright future then it might be worth paying for it, but it doesn’t mean much now. The more socialist view is that all the education should be paid by the government and public capital.

Just to draw a connection with your previous question about why the student movement is not doing so well these days…The college students in the 1980s and 1990s were considered part of the elite. They felt a sense of social responsibility. While they were later exploited as workers, they were nonetheless considered part of the elite. The college students of today are simply exploited. They are no longer part of the elite. They have simply accepted the ideology of neoliberalism and competition pervasive in Korean society.

Did you have any memorable moments during your campaign? During the Nov. 12 mobilization, we joined the protests at 2 PM, and I got home at 6 AM. I was in the streets for 16 hours! The other participants that were coming out for the first time simply followed us. I could sense from them desire and passion. That was really impressive. Also, I had a debate with someone about violence versus nonviolence. Nonviolence is a type of ideology to which we are brainwashed. Many Korean people were all about non-violence about following the rules. I was talking with one of the students about violence versus nonviolence in protests as we were sitting in front of the police line. He finally changed his mind after a middle aged man climbed on top of the police bus. The people reacted by telling him to get down and chanting “nonviolence.” Witnessing that changed his mind.

You are not necessarily speaking about getting violent per se, but more about pushing back against the riot police and not simply staying within the bounds they designate, right?

Yes.

What has been the role of the internet? The Internet was simply a tool for organizing people to the protest. What made them come out and protest was the issue itself.