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Protesting in Korea and America

By Ambassador Kathleen Stephens | Published: October 13, 2020

Summer camp is a great American tradition. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Sup sogŭi Hosu, the Korean Language Village, on the shores of a lake in northern Minnesota. For decades, young Americans who have gone on to positions of national and international leadership have had their first exposure to foreign language and cultures at Concordia Language Villages. The Korean program is one of the newest and its enrollment is turbocharged by the popularity of Korean culture among young Americans of diverse backgrounds. 
But this year amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and America’s continuing failure to “flatten the curve,” there were no happy noises of banter and songs in Korean, Chinese, Italian and a dozen other languages in the Villages on that Minnesota lake. This summer, Minnesota brought to mind George Floyd, whose brutal death at police hands in Minneapolis last May catalyzed “Black Lives Matter” protests for racial justice and police reform that have swept the nation.  

Ambassador Stephens, a white woman with short blonde hair, watches villagers build architecture models in the SupHo meeting room.
Ambassador Stephens in 2017, serving as celebrity guest
judge of a Village-wide architecture competition at 
Sup sogŭi Hosu.

Young people who might otherwise have been at summer camp have instead gone elsewhere, including online for study or distraction, or onto the streets to join in the protests. So I found myself on a hot day in July not traveling to Minnesota as I had in past summers, inflicting my anachronistic Korean on a younger American generation (with much better pronunciation than me and a far more up-to-date vocabulary!), but instead sitting in my Washington office gazing at a screen filled with 25 Korean Language Village students from across the United States. Summer camp had gone online; a pandemic is not going to stop these kids from learning Korean!  
The day’s theme was Korea’s protest culture. The students—or “villagers” as they are called in “camp culture”—had formed virtual groups to research one of four events in modern Korean history: the 1960s student protests, the 1980s democratization movement, the anti-American demonstrations of the early 2000s and the candlelight movement of 2016–17. Each group studied a protest song, photograph, work of art and poem from the period, and then reported back to the full group, including me, on what they had learned.  

Koreans protest the president in Chonggye Plaza
Protestors demand the resignation of President Park
Geun-hye during the Candlelight Revolution of 2016. 
Image courtesty of Wikipedia Commons.

The students’ impressions were insightful, if somewhat alarmingly free of historical context. They were moved by the passion, sacrifice, disillusion and idealism that pervaded these examples of “protest culture,” but they were uncertain what political and societal impact the movements themselves had had. I recounted what I had witnessed on the streets of Seoul in the mid-1980s, when university students, “the conscience of the nation,” were arrested and tortured. Their demands for democratization, and against police violence, galvanized a nationwide movement that secured a direct election of the president in 1987. I described walking through the same streets in 2016, in a prosperous, democratic Korea, but once again filled with citizens who were demanding that the president step down. I postulated that Korean “protest culture” has been a highly effective means of pursuing political goals. Rather than becoming less relevant with the strengthening of Korea’s democratic institutions and the rise of digital communications, protest culture is even more embedded in Korea’s political scene, along with a renewed commitment to the ballot box. Over 66% of eligible Koreans voted in the National Assembly elections earlier this year, the highest turnout since 1992 despite pandemic restrictions and precautions.
Understanding Korea’s politics, and its protest culture, is a worthy effort in its own right. At this moment in America when we are experiencing the largest and most sustained civil unrest since 1968, it has a special salience. The students then talked about their own experiences watching or joining protests, and how they decided when, where and how to protest. Learning about the Korean experience made them think more deeply about America’s own history of struggle, and what is going on now in their home communities.  
We Americans are asking ourselves the same questions Koreans have struggled with: How to bridge political polarization, and deep-seated inequities in our society and civic institutions? How does a society balance a desire for safety and order with ensuring the right to protest? How do we rebuild trust and capacity in our fraying democratic institutions and practices?  
Returning from the Peace Corps in Korea in 1978, I met the late Congressman John Lewis and worked in his office for a brief time. He was already legendary for his bravery in the civil rights protests of the 1960s for never abandoning his non-violent principles despite being badly beaten. He became known as the “conscience of the Congress.” One day before he was hospitalized in July for the cancer that would soon take his life, he visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.  
When Lewis joined the civil rights movement from a poor, segregated Southern town, his parents urged him just not to “get in trouble.” For the rest of his life, Lewis told that story, but urged others to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” Likewise, he never stopped reminding us that, “the vote is precious; it is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”

I wish our Sup sogŭi Hosu villagers could have gathered at camp in Minnesota to improve their Korean and learn more about Korea’s inspiring, complicated, unfinished modern journey. Instead, they are caught in this season of maelstrom and struggle. But it made learning more about the Korean protest culture, and reflecting on our shared challenges, more relevant than ever. 

Note: a version of this article was first published in Joongang Ilbo, one of the major daily papers in South Korea, in August 2020. An English format is published in coordination with The New York Times.

About the Author

A headshot of Ambassador Stephens wearing a yellow blazer.

Kathleen Stephens was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011, the first woman and first Korean-speaker to serve in that position. Other overseas diplomatic postings included China, former Yugoslavia, Portugal, Northern Ireland and India. She is currently the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C. From 1975 to 1977, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Korea, sparking her love of the language and culture.   

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