Countless young faces fit into a picture frame. On the streets, students march with pickets demanding an end to the regime, and students wear masks and running frantically, all the while calling for democracy. They risk their lives for the same dream with faint hope. Although it was a long fought road, their struggles were rewarded and their sacrifices were not in vain. Students achieved democracy and, as a direct result of their dedication, we live freely in the Republic of Korea. Democracy, however, is progressive. It is far from perfect. How have the lives of students evolved since the days of fighting for democratic rule in the nation?
The Victory of Justice
Democracy is a system in which the sovereignty of the state resides over the nation’s people and politics. It is practiced for the people or the ideas for such politics. Its conception was originated in ancient Greece, and the word is a combination of ‘demo(nation)’ and ‘kratos(domination)’, which together mean ‘national domination’. There are six basic requirements for a country to be considered a democracy. Among them, Korea has had a struggle realizing two of the principles, the first being that all members should be guaranteed civil rights and the second that ruling administration change should be carried out in a peaceful manner. The struggle to ensure these two principles always made students at the center of the struggle when Korea was deprived of sovereignty and oppressed by dictatorship.
However, today many people are unaware of the dedication of the students or historical facts. Many people think today’s youth are young, naive, and in lack of proper judgment. However, in the past, students’ power was strong. Authoritarian regimes even feared criticism from students regarding politics, so they controlled their ability to protest and abolished ‘Student Day’, better known as ‘Memorial Day’ today. Despite their harsh surroundings, students acted on their values and beliefs, and they showed the world that they were not mere youngers but people with the ability to change the world.
When the Day Comes
The Republic of Korea established democracy through three major historical happenings, and in each of them, students played a huge role. At the center of the anti-Japanese movement was the group of students studying in Japan during the Japanese occupational period. As intellectuals, they left their homeland to study and acquired new views and ideals. These students were greatly influenced by the principle of national self-determination that President Wilson of the USA established.1) They organized the ‘Korean Youth Independence Union’. It was the first organized independence movement by students, and it adopted the ‘February 8 Declaration of Independence’, which called for Korea’s independence, in Tokyo, Japan. The Declaration fired up the ‘March 1 Independence Movement’, the largest anti-Japanese movement in Korea and had a decisive effect on young anti-Japanese strugglers in the 1920s.
After winning independence from Japan, Korea established its own government, but failed to establish truly democratic state. In the 1950s, debate on sincere democracy was being discussed actively among students, and through these debates, students gained an even stronger sense of awareness. It was then that a dictator seized power, and students rallied once again together. They defied the dictatorship rule and overthrew the dictatorship at the historic ‘April 19 Revolution’. April 19 is a day to celebrate a ‘revolution’ not a ‘movement’ because it marked a day of change after 12 years of dictatorship and the sacrifice of many people over those years. On April 19, 1960, at least 115 people, including protesters and police, were killed and at least 727 were injured.2) If totals included all those who suffered or died throughout the 12 years of dictatorship, the number of victims and injuries would be countless. Despite of the struggle, true democracy had yet to be established, and military regimes continued to rule the nation.
The military regime amended the constitution and oppressed all those who opposed the government exercising governmental power. Students, again at the center, began an anti-establishment movement, called the ‘June Democracy Movement’. The movement called for an end to military rule in the 1970s, but the struggles, though fought valiantly, resulted in many sacrifices compare to the ‘April 19 Revolution’. In the 1980s, when a new military regime took power, national college students staged vehement street demonstrations demanding democracy. In 1987, the deaths of two patriotic martyrs, namely Park Jong-chul, a Seoul National University student, and Lee Han-yeol, a Yonsei University student, intensified the struggle for democracy. When the news of their deaths was made public, cries for reform and true democracy led to demonstrations throughout the country. It was only then that Korea took its first real steps towards democracy by revising legislative law and establishing an electoral system whereby citizens vote for a president.
Ongoing road to Democracy
Students knew that power was in knowledge, so they pushed themselves to achieve high academic goals. This was the power that brought change to Korea throughout the decades. In the 21st century, there are still students in Korea working to protect the democracy so many fought to achieve and make the nation better. They participate in political activities through more diversified ways to ensure basic rights and responsibilities. As students’ awareness and interest in politics increase, the number of contests on political issues for university and graduate students will rise. Through these contests, students have the opportunity to voice ideas on a variety of topics such as the environment, welfare, management, diplomacy, and so on. The Daegu Youth Center provides ‘Youth On’, a Youth Policy Research Platform for young people interested in politics. In ‘Youth On’ 2018, 14 teams were gathered to present policy proposals that they had created over a 4-month period. They shared their proposals, and each proposal was evaluated at the ‘Youth On, Final Policy Proposal Contest’.3) Through these kinds of activities, students are looking at social issues and finding ways to resolve them. 34 of these types of proposals have been adopted and implemented by the local city government.
Students today are also active members of political clubs on campus. ‘The Movement’ and ‘my POL’ are clubs that discuss and research policy on politics, diplomacy, and current affairs. The clubs were created by university students to study and offer policy proposals to the National Assembly or political parties in the hope of change. Indeed, the club members are often trained by professionals such as lawmakers and political aides. At club meetings, students study law and proposed reforms such as the ‘Life Policy’, which has a direct influence on the lives of citizens. In other words, students are tackling social issues that directly affect citizens’ lives. ‘my POL’, a student policy study group, recently posted an online signature petition calling for political parties to pass legislative law, which calls for expansion discounted transportation fees to all people under the age of 24. Another was the ‘Expand AED (Automated External Defibrillator) Installation and Prepare Installation Criteria’.4) As these examples show, students are contributing positively and aggressively to society in their own way. In this regard, although democracy in Korea does not have a perfect past, it is a progressive form.
The Present Is a Present
Lev Tolstoy said, “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.” There was a time when people risked their lives for tiny changes. At times when tiny change seemed impossible, people united, and at the center of Korea’s history, there were students. Students sacrificed their youth and their courage; furthermore, their determination to resist injustice moved the hearts of countless people. They lived up to the idea that small action can bring big change. It’s your turn. Dream better world and remember that we can change the world with our power.
1) The Principle of National Self-Determination: The principle that a nation can decide its own independence and political destiny
2) Kim Bitna, “April 19 Revolution, Victory of ‘Students, Citizens, and Justice’. They did not Succumb to Dictatorship and Tyranny”, Cheonji Ilbo, April 19, 2018
3) Kim Youngsik, “Daegu City, Holds ‘Youth On’ Policy Proposal Contest”, Gyeongsang Daily Newspaper, July 31, 2018
4) Hong Hyosik, “Delivery the Online Signature Petition that Calls for Expanding the Discounted Public Transportation Fees to All People 24 and Younger”, NEWSIS, November 6, 2017