Sunday, June 29, 2008

In the beginning...

(Note - I will get around to posting the sequel to this soon, and yes Joe, I do have something more humorous to post in the near future...)

In this article (linked to by a commenter in this Korea Beat post), the writer looks at the numbers and compares chances of death from BSE-contaminated beef with the CSAT:
In November 2007, 600,000 students took the CSAT. Of them, one student committed suicide right after taking the test on November 15 by jumping from his apartment building, and twin sisters in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province did the same in December after receiving their test scores, according to the JoongAng Daily (December 11).

Thus, at least three deaths out of 200,000 died as a direct result of the CSAT. Given Korea's population of 48 million, we can infer a comparative figure of 240 deaths from the CSAT compared to less than one from BSE-contaminated beef (assuming a link with Creutzfeldt-Jakob in the first place).

The figure may be far higher as 764 students committed suicide between 2000 to 2006, according to MoE statistics (Daily Surprise, Jan 5, 2008, Internet). Of course, these students unfortunately end their lives for a variety of reasons, from bullying to humiliation by teachers to economic distress.

Nonetheless, the CSAT remains a far greater killer of Korean children than mad cows. Where are their candlelight vigils?
Well, there have been candlelight vigils for them, actually.
I looked at the story of the twins who comitted suicide in Changwon several months ago, where I posted the photo below of a protest against the suneung (CSAT) in Daehangno after a girl in Namwon killed herself on November 5, 2003.

Of course, parents have held candlelight vigils as well - praying for their children's success before the test.

Parents praying at Bongeun Temple on November 10, 2007.

There have been larger candlelight protests, however. Heemang 21 (21세기 청소년공동체 희망, or '21st century youth community hope') organized this candlelit rally, in May, 2005, which criticized the education system and the pressures which cause students to kill themselves. The vigil itself was for those students who had died.

A Hankyoreh article about the vigil before it took place is here (which, unsurprisingly, tries to tie it to protests against the US military). The Hankyoreh also has an English editorial here:
The "Remembrance Event for Students Sacrificed for School Education" was attended by hundreds of students and regular citizens over the weekend without any major mishap. The reason there were fewer participants than had been anticipated was likely because the authorities had threatened disciplinary action and because teachers were mobilized and sent to the protest site to pressure people from attending. The thousands of police who surrounded the area with an intense presence also contributed to the low turnout. It was a perfect demonstration of the authoritarian and oppressive atmosphere in our society, since the free expression of opinion was labeled "collective action" and blocked.
What's interesting is that, according to some sleuthing R.Elgin did over at the Marmot's Hole, the website, which I looked at here, was registered on April 28 this year, and its Domain Name Server is This is the same group mentioned above - '21st century youth community hope' - that organized the protests against the education system in 2005.

What's interesting is that if you look at this article (linked to by Sonagi in this Marmot's Hole post), you'll see photos of a December 6, 2006 protest against the importation of US beef. In 2006, Korea began importing (boneless) beef for the first time since 2003, but sent back shipment after shipment because bone fragments were found in them. As can be seen below, people are holding the same mad cow posters seen at these days.

December 2006

May 2008

This would seem to suggest that these images predates, but though the site may have been registered on April 28, 2008, looking at the message boards on the website reveals that messages were posted there between November 15, 2006 and March 5, 2007 before the dates jump to April 28 of this year. It may be possible that this website had something to do with the December 2006 protest we see above. To be sure, two days after the website started again, messages announcing the first two candlelight vigils (May 2 and May 3) were posted there.

Police officials declared the candlelight vigils to be illegal on May 5. Referring to the first vigil on May 2,
"The event was registered as a cultural event but it was in fact a political gathering overflowing with agitation and agitating slogans,” said a Seoul Police Agency official. “It also dispersed at 10 p.m. instead of the 9 p.m. time it was registered for. We are already working on how to prosecute the organizers, since that much looks unavoidable,” he said.

Approximately ten thousand people gathered at Cheonggyecheon Plaza on May 2 and 3 and shouted slogans protesting the decision to allow imports of American beef and calling for the impeachment of President Lee Myung-bak. Similar protests took place in Busan, Gwangju, Incheon, Daegu, and other provincial cities. They were largely organized online, and those involved say there are going to be another round of protests on May 6 and 9.

The article above says the "event was registered as a cultural event," but another article says it's not necessary to register such events:
Civic groups and online communities have held rallies in downtown Seoul and in major cities nationwide since May 2. They did not report the gatherings to the police, claiming they were cultural events, which can be held at any time without prior reporting or permission according to the law.
The obvious question then is: who organized the first rally(s)? I looked around on naver for more information and discovered this poster:

(Click to enlarge)

In the square at the top it says LMB Tanhaek Tujaeng Yeondae, or "Lee Myung Bak impeachment struggle solidarity", which is also known as (see the black text at the bottom), the "National headquarters for the movement to impeach Lee Myung-bak", whose website can be found here (the antimb daum cafe) or at A look at the message board at this daum cafe shows that it began on December 19, 2007 - the day of the presidential election. The dot com site was registered the next day. While it should be pretty clear those running the cafe were rather opposed to Lee (or his policies), there may be other reasons for this timing.
The mainstream conservative media in Korea and in the U.S. originally applauded Lee's election claiming that he had won by an unprecedented margin. They left out the fact that a relatively small percentage of the population voted in the election. Also most media failed to mention that though netizens and the Internet had played a signficant role in the previous presidential election in South Korea in 2002, the online community had been excluded from the 2007 election. A new addition to the election law had been put in place for the 2007 Presidential campaign and election which led to the censorship of much of the netizen participation.

Over [extern] 65,000 online comments by netizens relating to the election were removed from the Internet and over 1000 netizens received summons to report to the police. According to the organization People in Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), even some netizens in Japan and the U.S. were told to report to the police in South Korea because of their posts on Korean Internet sites.

The imposition of such censorship with its arbitrary enforcement and penalties, left many netizens unable to discuss the election. After the election, however, when it again became possible to discuss political issues, netizens in Korea took up to actively discuss the nature of democracy and the importance of having government officials who are the servants not the masters of the citizens.
I'd tend to think that a cafe dedicated to impeaching a man who had only just been elected would not fall under the discussion of "the nature of democracy".

An interview with one of the cafe's administrators, Han Byeong-sang (45), reveals him to be a former member of Uri Party and later the Changjo Hanguk Dang (Korea Renewal Party), the party formed in October last year under which Mun Guk-hyeon ran for president. I'm quite certain "member" means an organizer or 'card carrying member', not someone running for office. He quit the party after the election, he said, so that he would not be seen as running the website for political reasons. He also says that he is shocked that people would think he just started the site to take advantage of the mad cow scare, that it's been around for months, and that it has issues other than mad cow that it thinks are important. He also states that 14 of the administrators at the site are members of the Korea Renewal Party or other parties.

As the wikipedia entry on the
National headquarters for the movement to impeach Lee Myung-bak notes, they've been organizing vigils or 'publicity protests' for months to draw attention to the negative side of Lee's policies and call for his impeachment. It should be noted that the well-known petition to impeach Lee Myung-bak was first posted on April 6, before Lee's trip overseas to Japan and the US. No mention of the petition turned up on the message board at the antimb cafe in the days after the petition was posted on Daum, suggesting the cafe members were unaware of it for several days, if not longer. They may not have had anything to do with the petition, but they were busy propagandizing in other ways: Here's a video on youtube put up in their name on March 30. On April 5 and 6, they held rallies in Myeongdong and by Tapgol Park.

On April 26 they held a rally at Cheonggyecheon Plaza. This site displays the poster seen below, as well as prophetically (as it turns out) surmising that each rally might bring out 10 times more people.

The poster complains of things like 'disgraceful diplomacy' and mad cow (the announcement that US beef would be imported came on April 18), though the picture depicts Lee in Japan. A post by one of the top administrators at the antimb cafe describes the rally's program as "Reject the second colony." It seems that 'mad cow' is just one of several complaints the group had. This article says that only 200 showed up for the April 26 protest at Cheonggyecheon. This site has many, many photos of the event:

More than 200 would show up at the next protest 6 days later, on May 2:

(from here)

Why the difference? The antimb cafe planned for its weekly rally (to be held on May 3) after their April 26 rally. Prior to the April 26 rally, farmer advocates had held rallies against US beef, such as one on April 21 near the Blue House. The national association of beef farmers had a protest in front of the Gwacheon government buildings on April 24 in which 7000 people participated, while a small protest near the Blue house regarding school lunches took place on April 29, where they announced that another rally would take place the next day in front of the Sejong Cultural Center. Most of the protests seemed to be fairly small (other than the one in Gwacheon). In other words, the public wasn't really so interested in the farmers, or at least, not interested enough to join their protests.

A look at the photos of the last two protests turns up none of the images seen in December 2006 and at the protests on May 2. restarted on April 28, and its iconic image of the mad cow and the parodies seemed to catch on with a younger generation.

Things really took off when PD Diary's April 29 episode looked at the threat mad cow disease could pose to Koreans when US beef imports began again. On the antimb message board, the show was talked about with anticipation before it was broadcast. One member, "Keureijui (crazy)", wrote after seeing it, "Ahssa! MBC!! Mansei... now the news is showing it too." Another member wrote that after PD Diary ended MBC News had also reported on mad cow disease. A few posts later, likely in the early hours of April 30 after the PD Diary broadcast, it was announced that on May 2 from 7-10pm a candlelight vigil would take place at Cheonggye Plaza. I would imagine that other websites contributed to the vigil, but the antimb cafe members took it upon themselves to organize it and release posters with the cafe's name on them.

Of course, there was more than just PD Diary's broadcast that was influencing people and led so many to join the vigil on May 2. That day, the Chosun Ilbo described the aftermath of the broadcast in an article titled "Going Overboard with Mad Cow Scare":
After the program aired, photographs parodying the government's opening of Korea to American beef were posted on the Internet, with titles like "crazy cow" or "the government's policy of genocide has begun." Comments posted on the Internet by a television actress, saying it would be better to drink acid than eat American beef, were also widely viewed.
Another Chosun Ilbo article from that day continued:
The impending resumption of imports of U.S. beef has spawned a proliferation of rumors on the Internet about the perils of mad cow disease, amplifying confusion and fears among consumers.

The personal blog of President Lee Myung-bak, who promised that resuming import of U.S. beef will bring high-quality and low-priced beef to the table, has been virtually shut down by Internet users who bombarded it with messages protesting against the decision.

Even madly unscientific rumors like, “Jelly, cookies, a broiled dish of sliced rice pasta and pizza will cause mad cow disease,” or, “Cosmetic products, sanitary napkins, and diapers are also risky because parts of cattle are used in production,” exhorting consumers to hoard such items before the imports, are spreading on the Internet.

Some radical critics of the import of U.S. beef are taking this issue politically further still, organizing an online petition to impeach the president. As of 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, 418,000 people have signed the petition on Daum, one of the largest Internet portal sites in Korea.
That article is way off in its appraisal of the petition, which was started April 6, almost two weeks before the announcement that US beef would be allowed back into Korea. Still, its useful for dating the appearance of the internet rumors regarding mad cow disease, which seem to have come in the wake of the PD Diary episode.

One of my adult students in his early twenties told me about the appearance of these rumors on On the message boards there, comments on posted messages can be rated. Those comments that are clicked several times with a good rating rise to the top, and can be seen right at the bottom of the original message. Comments with 5 or more negative ratings sink out of sight. It was by abusing this that commenters were able to leave these rumors (he gave the example of sanitary napkins being said to spread mad cow disease) on messages on many sites, making it clear that the messages were being spread deliberately. Even messages that had nothing to do with politics, messages dealing with personal problems, advice columns, sports boards, etc, were 'infected', so to speak by the virtual mad cow virus.

Or to use another metaphor, PD Diary set the fire, the rumors posted on popular sites all over the internet fanned the flames, and the candlelight vigils, also organized by online communities like the antimb cafe (and provided with a visual brand image by sites like provided a solution, an outlet for the mix of exaggerated fear and legitimate concern being stirred up - for the people, that is. For members of these sites, especially the antimb cafe - aka the National headquarters for the movement to impeach Lee Myung-bak - the rumors and fears provided them with the means to take to the streets and occupy public space in the time honored way. Occupying and closing down cyberspace like the president's website is not enough, at least not yet.

Speaking of "the mad cow brand," a
group of students can be seen holding signs at the May 2 rally.

As I've mentioned, Gord Sellar was also there for the first rallies on May 2 and 3 and took photos. As I've mentioned before, the Donga Ilbo wrote that
Among the protesters at Saturday [May 3]’s candlelight vigil against the resumption of U.S. beef imports, 70 to 80 percent were middle and high school students.
Feel free to look through the photo gallery at the bottom of this Donga Ilbo article from May 3, and see if it's actually "70 to 80 percent" students. This Donga Ilbo article from May 5 is rather interesting:
The Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement posted a guideline for the “fight against mad cow disease” on its homepage Sunday. The guideline said, “Let us roll up our sleeves to help more people express their anger. Let us plan candlelight vigils in all regions of the nation.”

“Let us organize emergency meetings in every region and publicize unified public action guidelines.” The group said it will “declare war” after holding an emergency meeting in Seoul [tomorrow] afternoon and hold a vigil at Seoul Cheonggye Plaza at 7 p.m. every day.

The alliance is comprised of 37 groups including the Korea Farmers’ League; the progressive Democratic Labor Party; the Korea Federation of University Student Councils; Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities; and the Pan-Korean Alliance for Unification.

An event to “nullify the import of mad cow disease” in downtown Seoul Saturday was organized by the Mad Cow Disease Public Supervisors under the Korea Alliance Against the Korea-U.S. FTA, led by the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy.

A television program was also aired on the danger of mad cow disease on the group’s homepage. Viewers were also encouraged to cut and paste video clips showing cows and people infected with the disease and Mp3 song files to other sites. Groups are also urging each person to relay text messages to 10 people to participate in the vigils and post ads on blogs and bulletin boards.
I like the phrase, "help more people express their anger." Who knew that civic groups were actually anger management organizations? Since the Donga Ilbo (and the Chosun and Joongang) were reporting on the internet rumors the same day, The sentence "Groups are also urging each person to relay text messages to 10 people to participate in the vigils and post ads on blogs and bulletin boards," seems to be rather convenient, especially since as time passed it has never been made clear where these messages came from. The Donga Ilbo may well be right, but I'm leery of trusting that remark without some evidence.

What really hit me when reading that article above was that it sounded like the civic groups were scrambling to organize after the May 3 rally: "
Let us organize emergency meetings in every region" sounds rather improvisational, and saying that the "Mad Cow Disease Public Supervisors under the Korea Alliance Against the Korea-U.S. FTA" (and PSPD) organized the May 3 rally seems off, considering the rally had been planned on the antimb cafe a week before (though they didn't expect many to show up). It seems more likely that the May 2 rally was a bit of a surprise, and that these groups joined in and rushed to add more to the next rally on May 3 (like a stage and sound system). Note that in this May 5 article, 37 groups are a part of the alliance. On May 7, the Joongang Ilbo reported that
Meanwhile, several protests opposing the beef deal broke out across the country yesterday, while some 1,500 civic groups formed a joint council to organize additional candle-light vigils and demonstrations on May 9 and 16.
It would soon become 1700 groups as vigils were organized throughout the country. After the internet-organized May 2 candlelight vigil, mainly organized by an online community dedicated to impeaching Lee Myung-bak, was successful, other groups and political parties throughout the nation began to pile on, causing the protest numbers to swell. The mad cow ghost stories and text messaging by students brought lots of students into the streets, but their participation was exaggerated by right wing media wanting to discredit the rallies, and by left wing media wanting to believe the youth were rising like it was April 1960 again.

The process described above sounds somewhat similar to what happened in 2002. In a 2007 paper by Ronda Hauben entitled "Online Grassroots Journalism and Participatory Democracy in South Korea," she traced the 2002 candlelight protests back to a posting by an angered internet user who was known online as AngMA, and who posted on several web forums a call to go to Gwanghwamun carrying candles after the drivers of the military vehicle were acquitted. Of course, what led to that was months of organizing by anti-US military groups whose propaganda (spread on websites and in the media) convinced this user that a grave injustice had been done. Once thousands showed up to answer his call, these same groups piled on and tried to enlarge and direct the rallies, calling for the revision of SOFA.

I think its important to note that the organizers of the May 2 candlelight vigil were dedicated to impeaching Lee Myung-bak (or at least used that concept to denote their opposition to him), and used the fear of BSE tainted beef to draw people to their rallies before other groups joined. As Scott Burgeson has written,
in effect, US beef was used as a kind of stealth WMD by opponents of the newly installed Lee Myung-bak administration, in order to put a check on his various neoliberal policies (including privatization of numerous state companies and services).
The protesters have wrung numerous concessions from the president, such as canceling the canal, and canceling the privatization of many companies, as well as preventing the shipping of beef older than 30 months to Korea. The protests continue, with fewer attending, despite such concessions, and photos like this are likely not going to make the public very supportive of the remaining protesters.


Anonymous said...

Awesome posting laying out the chain of events on these protests. Very impressive.

If there was anticipation on the message board in the days before the PD Diary report it makes me wonder if there was any collusion with MBC to air the report to be followed by their online propaganda campaign?

King Baeksu said...

Matt, you are correct that the protests have forced Lee to make a number of concessions, but the problem is that the protesters just don't believe him and accuse him of word tricks. For example, he replaced the word 민영화 (privatization) with 선진화 (lit. "advancement") in reference to his plans for various public companies here. The protesters believe that 선진화 essentially still means 민영화 in the end. I personally do not see the protesters extracting further concessions from Lee and expect the police to crack down harder and harder, but I think they will still keep going for a while. I think the idea of Lee running amok for the next 4.5 years is just too terrifying for them to endure.

matt said...

GI Korea: Thanks. Since the posts about the show were just a day or two prior, I'd imagine the posters simply learned about it by watching MBC or on the MBC website and hoped PD Diary would stir things up. Of course, you never know.

Scott: I hadn't known about the use of those words, thanks for pointing that out. We'll see how this plays out...

Mark Russell said...

If Lee Myung-bak's policies were so terrifying, I wonder why more people didn't vote last December, and why those who did voted overwhelmingly for LMB? And then why did the conservatives win the National Assembly by such a large margin in April?

The only answer I can think of is that the people who feel so strongly represent a distinct minority of opinion. But I'm open to other theories, if anybody has them.

King Baeksu said...

Mark, I've met a lot of people at the demos who voted for Lee, and their feelings can be summed up in two words: Buyer's remorse.

I think the protesters should start putting their energy into organizing to make people better political consumers the next time around.

The protests have made their point, and now it's time for long-term rather than short-term solutions.

It's time to move on.