The main gate of Korea University was once a place where you could see the tanks and police of dictators oppressing students who dared to ask for democratisation. But the revolutionary spirit has laid somewhat dormant the last 20 years. Today students are reawakening and asking their fellow citizens, ‘Are you OK?’
Young activists interested in the ‘Are you OK’ phenomenon met to discuss the future of their movement at Korea University Feb. 22. They identified their key grievances and developed a strategy to see those issues addressed.
“We want to gather the people who have written the posters” said Kang Tae Gyong, who helped organise the assembly. “We want to know not only the poster, but the people who have got involved in this movement to hear what their problem is and what things we can do to make it better.”
The frustrations of young people towards modern life and a society ruled by accepted norms of elders were at the heart of their discussions. “They try to judge you by their perspective” said Park Eun Song. “I was old to be in college but I was still studying. I love to study my major. But they always say ‘you have to do this’ and ‘you have to do that.’ But I am going to live my life, I am not OK,” she added.
It was one poster displayed by Ju Hyun-Woo that galvanized other students to write a series of posters airing their own grievances last December. The movement spread across universities, high schools and social media to become a nationwide campaign. The posters have touched on issues that range from privatisation to healthcare and gender inequality to sexual discrimination. “I didn’t start this for political purposes,” said Ju during an interview with local radio reported in the Korean Herald. “I read a news article that some 4,200 rail workers lost their jobs in just a day and felt so much regret.”
The movement has not been limited to posters by young people. Around 350 students joined the railroad workers strike last December and the group is now involved in protests against the building of electricity pylons in rural areas. Its Facebook page has now reached 250,000 ‘likes’ and many involved have joined protests alongside workers, trade unions and older activists.
Underpinning the movement has been a number of concerns of South Korean youth. More than a third of elementary and secondary school students had suicidal thoughts in the past year, according to a recent survey. And more than 3 million people with college degrees remain economically inactive says Statistics Korea. The Government has moved to address the issue with the Ministry of Employment and Labour putting expanding job opportunities for youth at the top of its 2014 agenda and announcing a set of measures to help move more young people into the job market.
South Korea is certainly no stranger to youth led movements. The so-called ‘386 generation’ protests throughout the 1980’s were instrumental in moving South Korea towards democratisation. Those students also secretly worked in factories and set up trade unions to help campaign for higher wages and better worker conditions.
Today’s question of ‘Are you OK?’ harkens back to some old methods of protest such as the ‘daejabo’ posters and mass demonstrations while incorporating new methods such as using social media. For example K-Pop stars such as Shinee member Jonghyun have helped to increase the movement’s exposure. Jonghyun posted a picture of a message written by a transgendered, bisexual student from Sungkonghoe University on his twitter feed that was seen by thousands of his followers.
There are some students however who have responded to the movement cautiously. “I don’t think teenagers are ready to have these kinds of talks involving social issues,” an 18-year-old high school student told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We are still too young to discuss these sensitive issues.”
A counter campaign that asks ‘are we allowed to be happy?’ has emerged that claims that young Korean’s are much better off than previous generations and people should focus on their own family and lives. A posting on Toonburi embodies their feelings, “I think if my family is happy first of all and such families are put together, the nation can be happy.”