A protest gathering in Cheongju, South Korea, on June 10, 2008
(Photo credit: Dax Melmer on Flickr)
I’ve been following what’s been happening in South Korea with the recent “beef protests,” which have been ongoing for about a month or so. Seems that when South Korean president agreed to lift a five-year old ban on US beef imports back in April, he hit a nerve.
There’s a strong history of civil unrest in South Korea, a legacy of the country’s long period of military rule, which only came to an end in 1987. However, traditionally street protests in South Korea have meant two things — university students and organized labour. Both groups have relied on strong, top-down organization (and not a little violence) to get their message across.
However, these protests are different. The crowds are more varied, they’re more peaceful, and they’re definitely not relying on traditional organizing methods.
A story in yesterday’s International Herald Tribune summarizes how these protests came about:
When Lee agreed in April to lift a five-year-old import ban on U.S. beef, despite widespread fears that the meat might not be safe from mad cow disease, it quickly became a hot topic on the Internet, first among teenage girls gathering at fan Web sites for television personalities, and later at Agora, a popular online discussion forum at the Web portal Daum.
There, people suggested that they stop just talking and take to the streets. When a high school student began a petition on Agora calling for Lee’s impeachment, it gathered 1.3 million signatures within a week. The police were caught off-guard on May 2 when thousands of teenagers networking through Agora and coordinating via text messages poured into central Seoul, holding candles and chanting “No to mad cow!”
The mainstream media and the government ignored them at first. But protesters stepped forward as “citizen reporters,” conducting interviews, taking photographs and, thanks to the country’s high-speed wireless Internet, uploading videos to their blogs and Internet forums. One video showing the police beating a female protester caused outrage on the Internet and prompted even more people to join the demonstrations.
While the beef issue provided the flashpoint, these protests are more about expressing disatisfaction with South Korean President. This feature story from Asia Times adds some perspective:
The most commonly seen slogans are variations on “No to US beef!” But people seem equally, if not more, upset about President Lee Myung-bak. “The President Lee said he would serve people. I think he’s not doing it. So, I am protesting,” said tiger-suited Lee.
Mahbub Alam from Bangladesh said of the street protests: “I get the feeling that the issue is not just about the beef. The American beef is rather a symbol for people to snub President Lee, who they feel is snubbing them.”
The story has dubbed this as Protest 2.0:
This is South Korea’s street protests 2.0. Or, perhaps, South Korea’s “postmodern” demonstrations. With some Koreans mistrustful of mainstream media reports on the demonstration, they’ve taken matters into their own hands by broadcasting and reporting themselves. Using high-speed wireless Internet, some “embedded” citizens are using their own laptops and camcorders to broadcast real-time events. There are “citizen reporters” conducting interviews and taking pictures and posting them on their personal blogs and Internet forums. In fact, these news hounds have been so effective that some established newspapers have begun quoting them.
Sound familiar? Citizen journalism, online petitions, spontaneous organizing via social networking sites… we’ve seen smaller examples of this phenomenon here in Canada, such as the Facebook-organized opposition to Bill C-61.
And Korea’s Protest 2.0 has so far been effective — in the face of ongoing protests, Lee Myung-bak sent his trade Minister to the US in an effort to renegotiate the beef deal, and last week, his entire Cabinet offered to resign.