Korean Students Speak Up
Note from author: Part of my duties in the United States Air Force in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was as a journalist. Far too much of what I was assigned to cover were award ceremonies and “grip and grin” photos. However, once in awhile, I was given the opportunity to cover something exciting. This was one of my best and I felt it was worth sharing. This article appeared in a weekly newspaper called The MiG Alley Flyer on May 25, 1990. It’s worth noting that violent student demonstrations were regular occurrences and garnered regular headlines out of Korea during this time. It’s also worth noting that this publication was “Best in Air Force,” for this year ;).
Editor’s note: Mig Alley Flyer staff writer, SrA Raymond East, recently visited several Korean universities to talk with students about their views on American-Korean relations. As timing would have it, his visit fell on the same day of massive student protests. What he found was some frank and surprising views from student bodies that will most likely produce the leaders of the 21st century.
Seoul – At first glance, it’s not hard to see why Seoul, with its 12 million people, numerous skyscrapers and bustling industry has taken a place among the world’s more heralded cities.
However, the fact that Koreans are making huge strides at break-neck pace has been a source of concern for some and led to a sense of growing animosity among many students and labor unions against the government.
For foreigners here, the question is, “Why is a country that has a democratic system and is outwardly much better off than their communist siblings to the north, experiencing such a growing feeling of unrest?”
That’s the answer I sought when I visited four Korean universities recently. I did not quite know what to expect. For sure, it wasn’t to walk smack into the middle of a violent student-police clash.
My first stop was at Kyong-Hee University. There, Kim, Young Woo, 24, a history major, was a moderate who felt that the extremely radical students are relatively small in number, especially considering Seoul’s dense population.
“These students feel Korea can take care of its own matters, including defense, without any help from the United States. The radical students don’t necessarily hate Americans, but they simply want full control of their country.” Kim did make it clear that most Korean people wish to remain an ally of the United States.
“We don’t really feel the United States interferes with our country, per say, but many Korean people want to be completely independent,” Kim said. “Personally, I’m not quite sure we are ready for that yet.”
“North Korea is not very far from here, and many of us feel the threat of invasion is possible at any time. Our military is not large enough to protect us.”
Although Kim feels the ROK benefits greatly from the US presence here, he explained that the average Korean citizen feels we are having a negative impact on Korean culture.
“The heavy western influence the military brings here is causing the Korean people to lose some of their culture and traditions,” he said.
Choi, Boo-Kil, 25, also a history student at the university, has a somewhat different view of things. Choi fulfilled his two years of mandatory military duty as a riot patrolman. Prior to that, he was a student who participated in many demonstrations. As a policeman, he was on the other end.
“It was very hard for me to break up student demonstrations because sometimes my friends were in the crowd. And now, sometimes my friends are among the policeman breaking up the protests. So for me, as with many other students, I’m caught in the middle.”
Both Kim and Choi stated they are not too actively involved in politics and are more interested in succeeding in their studies.
“Most students just want to do well in school,” Kim said. “When other students demonstrate and the police come, it just makes it harder for us to go to school. I’m worried about Korea’s future, but I’m also worried about mine. I don’t have time to worry about the politicians and there’s not much I can do about them anyway.”
My biggest surprise came while visiting Dankook University. While walking up a wide walkway with high, brick walls on each side, a large group of students came running in my direction throwing rocks and fire bombs. When I turned to escape, and even larger group of riot patrolman had appeared and were coming from behind firing tear gas and wielding batons. I had nowhere to run. Before I knew it, I was swept up into the crowd of demonstrators.
I backed up against one of the walls and watched the clash. The students were throwing things and yelling anti-government slogans, while the police wore gas masks and pushed against the crowd with their shields. Tear gas was fired and the entire confrontation was dispersed almost instantaneously. The entire event lasted approximately five minutes and, while it seemed to be happening almost in slow motion, it seemed like it all took place in all of five seconds.
That was my opportunity to flee as well. I ran quickly, albeit with burning eyes and throat, and very runny nose.
Next stop: Dongguk University. After my experience at Dankook, I was a little nervous. Upon my arrival, the atmosphere was very peaceful, but the objective was the same. There were groups of students sitting in circles holding up flags and singing quietly amongst themselves. There were some anti-government messages painted on the sidewalks and homemade signs, but, for the most part, things were quiet here.
Na, Geum Sang, a cultural science major, said in general, Korean people like Americans and most of the problems in Korea are internal.
“American people have very good manners. We like Americans and their sense of humor. You are very interesting to us,” he said. “The students here don’t want trouble. We like our schools and don’t feel violence is the way to solve any problems.”
When I visited Dangun University, things were fairly normal. Students were going about their business, oblivious to the outside world. Some were simply studying under a tree while others were tossing baseballs back and forth. A few art students were working on their latest paintings and still others were watching a Korean dance group polish its act.
Of the four universities I visited, I saw the various extremes from radical to nonchalant. But in all, I thought it was a very good experience. The people I saw were young – and clearly the future of Korea.
I also saw a county whose future leaders were struggling for an identity, forged out of the past, present and future.
Whether Americans agree with the students’ point of view is irrelevant, according to one student.
However, he did ask that we try to understand their need to exercise their liberties.