At the beginning of 2014, Korean university students were reported by a variety of media to be actively participating in politics. From a declaration of state affairs by various universities in 2013 to the “How are you?” handwritten posters covering campus bulletin boards, university students have seemingly been active in attempting to find ways to improve society. Also, with the development of information technology and social networking services, students are being viewed as expressing their political views through actively via the Internet, indicating that they do pay attention to politics. In this respect, it seems like an inaccurate assessment by critics to say that university students are indifferent to politics in Korean contemporary society. On the other hand, when their cover of anonymity is removed, it appears that these same energetic students suddenly become mute “Those who participate in political activities or bring forth views on politics are actually very few in number. Even though I have been interested in politics, I am reluctant to exchange my political opinions with even my close friends,” said Shin Seong-ho, a Senior in the Division of Economics at Hanyang University(HYU).
According to a survey conducted by The Hanyang Journal(The HJ) on Hanyangians, 60 percent said they feel uncomfortable expressing their political preferences privately or publically. Interestingly, university students have difficulties raising their voices when it comes to politics due to various reasons such as uncomfortable arguments with friends or fear of future consequences.
However, university students who are planning to become the leaders of the next generation should have a say in politics. Their reluctance to voice their opinions in public serves as a hindrance in bettering our society.
Student Political Participation in Korea
Korean students are not known to be politically reserved in Korean contemporary history. From activism against the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century to the era of military dictatorships, the Korean students of the past have an established and honorable place in history. They acted on their political beliefs and were responsible for orchestrating protests all over the country.
During the Japanese occupation, a large student movement known as the Chosun Youth Aggregate Union for Independence was formed by Korean students studying in Japan. Under Japanese occupation, Korea sent representatives to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 in order to call for Korea's independence. However, due to the fact that Japan too was sending representatives as well as the general acceptance of imperialism among the world’s most powerful countries, the students foresaw that a nationwide movement was needed to better put their campaign into motion. They declared Korea's independence in Tokyo, Japan on February 2, 1919, and sent the declaration to Korea and Shanghai, China. Those that were not arrested by Japanese police went on to spark the March 1st Movement, which has become a national holiday. Korean students living in Japan, despite their constant oppression, had the foresight and initiative to start a movement that would go down in history.
These kinds of student movements continued during the authoritarian governments that held power until the 80s. After President Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law on May 17, 1980, soldiers took over universities in the city of Gwangju. Students at Chonnam National University who were kept from entering the campus started protesting against the soldiers. After some students were suppressed with force, citizens were angered by the violence and joined the movement. This led to one of the most famous movements in Korea, the May 18th Gwangju People's Uprising, which demanded the resignation of President Chun and the release of the would-be president, Kim Dae-jung. Although the protest met a tragic ending with many Gwangju citizens being massacred, the movement itself demonstrates the crucial role students had back then who were not afraid to risk their lives for the greater good. For decades, Korean students had the will not only to talk about their political beliefs despite external oppression, but they also acted upon them.
Political Polarization in Korea
In contrast, university students these days are having a hard time even expressing their political views in private let alone public. "While I assume that most of my friends are politically progressive like me, I never mention anything related to politics because I feel that it would lead to an uncomfortable discussion," said a Hanyangian who wanted to remain anonymous. According to a survey by The HJ, 44 percent of Hanyangians who said they do not exchange their political opinions with others freely, answered that the biggest reason for their reservation was to avoid getting into an argument. Due to reasons such as this, many university students in Korea have an evasive reaction to politics.
Moreover, recently Korean politics have becomeextremely aggressive and polarized. Those who express left-wing ideals are often branded ultra-leftists, communists or pro-North (Korea). The same is true for right-wing activists, in terms of labeling. Since those who expresses their political preferences are usually categorized as being in the far-right or far-left, center-left or center-right groups cannot easily reach a consensus. This kind of political behavior ends up being vitriolic and unproductive with each side lashing out at the other. This results in keeping people from speaking their minds, lest their words be misconstrued or taken out of context.
For instance, on January 1, 2014 Ahn Cheol-soo, a representative of the New Political Vision Party who has remained politically neutral, paid his respects to former Presidents Park Chung-hee and Rhee Syngman in commemoration of the New Year. This act of commemoration aroused severe criticism from the Progressive Party who condemn Ahn as pro-Japanese, since he laid flowers on the grave of the former president they view as pro-Japanese. Even Ahn, a man known for his neutrality, has been pulled into this incessant bickering between the conservative and progressive groups in Korea.
These kinds of conflicts can also be seen in Internet communities such as Ilbe Storehouse which has become a symbol for extreme rightists. Ilbe Storehouse first came to light for being extremely right-winged and using aggressive, inappropriate language against left-wing supporters. However, leftists have struck back, hurling at center-right supporters labels such as Ilbe-chung and Ilbe-gay. “The phrase ‘Are you an Ilbe (user)?’ means ‘Are you on the extreme right?’ online. One of my friends tends to consider all Ilbe users to be extreme rightists. However, I do not think this is always the case since there must be those who are center-right or those who remain politically neutral,” said Seo Kyung-hoe, a Junior in the Division of Economics at HYU.
It is quite the same situation inside the online community. Oyu, known as a left-leaning online community, is the place where center-leftists cannot raise their voices freely. “I once saw a person who set forth his or her views on President Park Geun-hye’s leadership in the community. He or she just happened to talk about Park’s leadership impartially. However, several Oyu users hit out at the anonymous user, even branding him or her as a Sukkol, a word disparaging right-wing supporters. Even though most of Oyu users are center-left or left wing, I was a little uncomfortable,” said Lim Wan-ju, a Junior in the Department of Sociology at SungKongHoe University.
Such political conflicts clearly show the status of Korean politics today. "Words like pro-North, commie, or Ilbe-chung are terms that people use when they refuse to have a productive conversation about politics. They are not respecting others’ opinions but rather are regarding opponents as demons or monsters who are not worth confronting," said Professor Joseph E. Yi in the Major of Political Science and Diplomacy at HYU. This aggressive and unproductive polarization of politics is keeping reasonable people, including students, who are willing to have a logical discussion, from entering the political scene.
Diminishing Urgency of Political Action
Although stereotyping as well as the structure of Korean politics is to blame, the political issues of today also make it difficult to initiate large, meaningful student movements. In the past, student movements held a single purpose that many people could agree with and rally under. During the Japanese occupation, it was the independence of Korea and during the periods of dictatorships, people rallied for the democratization of Korea. However, political pluralism, in which the needs and interests of many different people must be taken into account, has become one of the dominant philosophies in Democracy. "When the dictatorships came to an end, many of the student movement leaders were left confused. Unlike before, there was not an immediate issue that urged ordinary citizens to rise to their feet." said Professor Yi. Since independence and democracy were achieved, contemporary Korean students are having a harder time finding a political issue that they feel is urgent enough to fight for or against.
Another reason that university students are seemingly more hesitant to actively participate in politics is because there are more students. In the past, when most people could not afford to receive higher education, university students had a sense of pride and obligation as elitists and intellects to lead society. In 1980, only 27% of high school graduates went on to college. As students that did not go on to get jobs like most high school graduates, university students contributed to society in the form of political participation. Recently however, records show that 80% of high school students go on to college, making Korea a country with one of the highest college enrollment rates. Without a pressing sense of duty felt by past generations of university students, student political participation among today’s young scholars is declining.
Bigger Priorities for Students
The stressful search for jobs is yet another factor behind the weakening political participation of university students. Finding employment after graduation is the first thing on students’ minds. In fact, some students are even afraid that involvement in political activities could affect their chances of employment. “I once heard that a number of companies deduct points from job candidates who have participated in political activities. That is why I have not participated in any political rallies or revealed my views on politics,” Jeong Ye-seul, a Senior in the Department of Civil and Environment Engineering at HYU.
However, Lee Jong-tae, the Chairman of the Career Support Center at HYU said, “It is not true that companies give penalties to those who have participated in political activities. It is just a rumor among university students who have been extra cautious about their job-seeking.” Regarding the rumor, Professor Kim Sung-soo of the Major of Political Science and Diplomacy at HYU commented, “In the past, politics was the most popular subject of discussion because it affected the livelihood of university students the most, like the Gwangju Democratization Movement which was led by university students. However, now that the risk of unemployment is the biggest threat to university students, most of them have lost interest in things that take up time and do not help them career-wise.”
How to Resolve This Dilemma
While it may be difficult for Korean students to express their political opinions, it is essential for them to participate in politics as members of society. "Unlike professional politicians who tend to be more compromising and conservative, university students can provide new insight into social issues. Since they are further from traditional politics, they possess the ability to look at things from a more progressive, academic, and critical standpoint," said Professor Kim. University students and their opinions about politics would be a great asset in improving society. In order to achieve this level of participation, a number of changes must take place.
Professor Kim advised that university students stop distancing themselves from politics by thinking that it is the job of politicians. "Concerns are everywhere in everyday life. When a taxi driver complains about how new taxi regulations are leading to a reduction in the number of passengers, politics is involved in that statement. Anybody can engage in or talk about politics," added Professor Kim. Once students get more comfortable with the idea of politics and the fact that they can really make a difference with their views and opinions, they will be more open to the idea of participation.
Aggressive and polarized political conflicts, whether they take place online or offline, are also an issue that should be resolved. Unless people discussing politics decide to acknowledge and try to understand others with different views or ideologies, the current unproductive nature of Korea’s political structure will continue to persist. "People discussing politics should endeavor to step out from behind the walls of anonymity and start regarding each other as teammates with the same goal to improve our society, rather than opponents. Politics that involves slanderous language and blindly criticizing others will get us nowhere." said Professor Yi. In an understanding and respectful political environment, students will be motivated to speak up about their opinions on politics without the fear of creating controversy.
A Wasted Opportunity to Improve Society
Student political participation is beginning to make a reappearance these days, but many are still being held back by various factors, such as political pluralism, meaningless political conflicts, and employment concerns, all serving to keep students from participating in politics. While there may be external solutions to this problem, it is ultimately up the students to overcome these challenges in order to positively contribute to society.