Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Protests, public space in Seoul, and cyberspace - Part 1

Part 1: From the Joseon Dynasty to the 5th Republic
Part 2: Sports nationalism in 2002: Through a video screen darkly
Part 3: Funeral processions from the Joseon Dynasty to the present
Part 4: The 2002 candlelight protests: A new form of demonstration
Part 5: Anti-communist exhibitions

Part 1: From the Joseon Dynasty to the 5th Republic

As protests have been going on in downtown Seoul for over a month now, I thought I'd take a look at where they've been taking place, and how they relate to other large protest movements in the past. Here's a trusty map of where many of the larger protest movements of the past have taken place in downtown Seoul, from 110 years ago to the present.


In the first post I'm going to look at why the area around City Hall became important in the final days of the Daehan Empire, at how early protest movements came to be, at why the Japanese built the roads and buildings in the area that they did, and how these spaces were used in post-Korean War protest movements. Part two [Update - and three] will look at the use of these spaces in the new millenium and how the urban space and cyberspace have become entangled, among other things.


The above map should make clear that in 1776, there were only a few prominent streets in Seoul: Jongno, Namdaemunno (which make a sort of T shape), Sejongno (leading to Gyeongbok Palace), Euljiro, Cheonggyecheon, and the street leading from Jongno to Changdeok Palace.

During the latter half of the Joseon Dynasty, Changdeok Palace was the main palace, having been rebuilt in the early 1600s after its destruction (along with all of the other palaces in Seoul) during the Hideyoshi invasions of the 1590s. Worth noting (according to Samuel Hawley's The Imjin War) is that it was Seoul's citizens, angry that the king was fleeing and leaving them to their fate, who burned Seoul's palaces - not the invading Japanese armies. In the 1860s Gyeongbok Palace, having sat in ruins for over 250 years, was rebuilt, and it became the main palace under King Gojong's rule. The two most common types of protest at the time were peasant uprisings and (if I remember correctly) bowing before the palace's gate and submitting petitions to the King.

Street scene in Seoul, 1884 (by Percival Lowell)

Lillias Underwood's book "Fifteen years among the top-knots; or, Life in Korea" describes a scene she witnessed not long after her arrival in 1888:
We soon found that the stones and missiles were coming our way, and were forced to run for shelter to a Korean house. For a few moments the fight was hot around us, and then as it seemed to have passed on quite far down the street we ventured forth, only to find that the tide had again turned, and the whole mob were tearing in our direction. Mr. Bunker, for it was he, said there was nothing for it but to scale a half-broken wall into an adjacent compound, and run for it to the house of Mr. Gilmore, not far distant. So, reckless of my best gown, I scaled the wall with great alacrity, and we ran for it quite shamelessly. Missiles of considerable size were raining around us, and the possibility, or rather probability, that one would soon light on our heads, accelerated our speed to no small degree.
While it may sound as if she had encountered a modern-day protest, complete with stone throwing, she had actually encountered something different:
During my first year I had the exciting and doubtful privilege of being present at a native sectional or stone fight, an experience which few covet even once and which the wise and informed, at least of womankind, invariably forego. Once a year at a certain season, where two neighborhoods or sections have grievances against each other, they settle them by one of these fights. They choose captains, arrange the opposing parties, and begin firing stones and tiles at each other.
A stone fight

Also during her first year in Seoul, she experienced this:
Some person or persons, with malicious intent, started a rumor which spread like wild-fire, that foreigners were paying wicked Koreans to steal native children, in order to cut out their hearts and eyes, to be used for medicine. This crime was imputed chiefly to the Japanese, and it was supposed the story had been originated by Chinese or others especially inimical to the large numbers of Japanese residents in the capital. Mr. Underwood acquainted the Japanese minister with the rumors, in order that he might protect himself and his people ; which he promptly did by issuing, and causing to be issued by the government, proclamations entirely clearing his countrymen of all blame in the matter, which it was left to be understood was an acknowledged fact, and consequently the work of other "vile foreigners," namely, ourselves and the Europeans.

The excitement and fury grew hourly. Large crowds of angry people congregated, scowling, muttering, and threatening. Koreans carrying their own children were attacked, beaten, and even killed, on the supposition that they were kidnapping the children of others ; and a high Korean official, who tried to protect one of these men, was pulled from his chair, and narrowly escaped with his life, although he was surrounded by a crowd of retainers and servants. It was considered unsafe for foreigners to be seen in the street. Marines were called up from Chemulpo to guard the different legations, and some Americans even packed away their most necessary clothing and valuables, preparatory to fleeing to the port. The wildest stories were told. Babies, it was said, had been eaten at the German, English, and American legations, and the hospital, of course, was considered by all the headquarters of this bloodthirsty work, for there, where medicine was manufactured and diseases treated, the babies must certainly be butchered.
While the mob's anger eventually dissipated, it revealed how even the most unlikely accusations aimed at foreigners could be believed by mobs in a crowded urban space where rumors traveled quickly. Not for nothing did Isabella Bird Bishop write that "Gusts of popular feeling which pass for public opinion in a land where no such thing exists can only be found in Seoul." In speaking of non-existent public opinion, she was referring to the lack of newspapers in Seoul. This would change in April, 1896, with the establishment of the Independent (more on that here). Writing in 1897, Isabella Bird Bishop relates that
The sight of newsboys passing through the streets with bundles of a newspaper in En-mun under their arms, and of men reading them in their shops, is among the novelties of 1897.[...] Only those who have formed some idea of the besotted ignorance of the Korean concerning current events in his own country, and of the creduility which makes him the victim of every rumor set afloat in the capital, can appreciate the significance of this step and its probable effect in enlightening the people, and in creating a public opinion which shall sit in judgement on regal and official misdeeds.
The Independent was born a few months before the Independence Club, which, after building Dongnimmun and an Independence Hall, held debates about the direction Korea should take in the future. The would eventually organize an "assembly of officials and the people" at Jongno intersection in October of 1898 as they called for more popular participation in the ruling of the country.

Prior to this, something that would change the future shape of Seoul had taken place. In February 1896, King Gojong fled from the Japanese controlled Gyeongbok Palace to the Russian legation, from which he ruled the country. Due to criticism (in part from the Independence Club) Gojong moved from the Russian legation to the nearby Gyeonggun Palace (present day Deoksu Palace) in February 1897. The center of power in Korea, and in Seoul, now lay there.

There's a certain irony to this, because it was precisely because that palace had been so unimportant that parts of it had been given to foreigners to be used for their legations during the 1880s. Once they settled there, however, the area became, with its legations protected by extraterritoriality, modern schools, and churches, a sort of globalized space, and a conduit to foreign power, influence, and even protection. Thus Gojong used the formerly unimportant palace site as his new power base - where he hoped he would be protected from the Japanese.

Gyeonggun Palace before 1904

Chong-Sik Lee's "Syngman Rhee: The Prison Years of a Young Radical" describes the actions of the Independence Club:
[T]he Independence Club had debated the need for a parliament since April [1898], and the the Dongnip Shinmun had expounded at length on it in its April 30 issue. And on July 31 the Club sent a memorial to the emperor "begging him to dismiss unworthy persons from the government and to give the popular voice a share in the management of the affairs of the nation." When the Emperor curtly replied that the Club should not interfere with the affairs of the state, the Club members sent off another strongly worded memorial. The fight was on.

As a number of cabinet officers sided with the reformists, the emperor made some concessions by appointing a number of Club members to the Chungchuwon, or Privy Council, as advisors, but it only whet the appetite of the club members. They wanted the corrupt old ministers dismissed and a parliament installed, and decided to resort to a sit-in in front of a palace gate. The four-day-and-night long sit-in, held between October 8 and 12 [1898], was clearly intimidating. On October 12, the emperor relented by appointing a new cabinet headed by Pak Jeong-yang, which began to negotiate with the club.

The photo above is almost certainly not of that sit-in, but gives an idea of what it may have been like. The emperor would renege on his agreement with the Independence Club and arrest its members on November 4. As Yun Chi-ho recorded in his diary the next day,
Yi Sungman [...] and Yang Hong-mook [...] called on my and we agreed that a crowd should be drummed up as soon as possible. They went out and by the help of others succeeded in getting up a crowd in front of the police station demanding to be arrested to share the punishment of the Club Men.
Yes, that is Yi Sungman, future first president of South Korea. The demonstrations would continue for three weeks until November 26. Convinced by the US and British ministers not to fire into the crowds, Gojong gave in to the demonstrators' demands - but not before hiring peddlers to attack the demonstrators, who defended themselves by hiring stone throwers.
On December 1, they decided to celebrate their victory and display their power by holding a funeral procession for a supporter, Kim Deok-gu, who had been killed the previous week in a skirmish against the peddlers. "Tens of thousands" of people joined in the procession and lined the streets to watch the funeral train move from the center of the city, Jongno, to the funeral site at the outskirts of the city wall and then to the burial site. Even though the victim was a mere cobbler, most likely one who weaved straw shoes commonly worn at this time, the funeral rivaled that of any royalty in grandeur and scale.
Gojong would go back on his word and eventually use royal guards and peddlers to disperse the demonstrators, putting the city under virtual martial law on December 24. Most of the people involved with the Independence Club - including Syngman Rhee - would be thrown in prison.

What has been described above is essentially Korea's first modern mass political movement, with citizens taking to the street to influence the decisions of those in power. 'Mass movement' might not quite be the right term, but it has many of the contours of future political movements in Korea.

Of course, this was pretty much the last gasp of the Joseon dynasty, and likely was Gojong's last chance at saving the situation. Seoul would be occupied by Japanese troops in February 1904, at the start of the Russo-Japanese War, and they wouldn't leave until 1945. Among the things done by the Japanese after annexation was a road widening campaign. To be sure, what is now Taepyeongno (which runs from the Gwanghwamun intersection, past City Hall and Deoksugung down to Namdaemun) did not exist before 1900, but whether work was done on it before the Japanese takeover I don't really know. It was certainly widened in 1912, and may have even been built then. An essay titled "Transformation of Seoul's Modern Urban Landscape" by Kyu-Mok Lee says that the building of this street "can be interpreted as [Japan's] intention to remove the base and tradition of the anti-Japanese demonstrations that were held frequently at the square in front of Daehanmun." One would imagine it would be useful for moving troops from Yongsan as well.


The above photo shows Taepyeongno as seen from Namdaemun before 1925, when the building a the visible end of the street was torn down and replaced with what is now Seoul City Hall. The next mass movement that would be seen in Seoul was the Samil Movement which began on March 1, 1919 (which I've written about here, here and here). Protesters would gather in many places, such as on Jongno...



...as well as in the area in front of Daehanmun (modern day Seoul Plaza).



While independence was not achieved by the protests, the cultural policy followed by Japan in the wake of the protests led to more openness. One of the mass movements during this era was the Korean Production Movement of 1923-24, where, in order to support Korean businesses, people bought Korean products when they could. In 1924 the landscape of Seoul changed when the building seen in the background of the photo above was torn down and what is now City Hall was built (between August 23, 1924 and November 30, 1926).


The above photo of City Hall under construction is from this blog, which has numerous photos of the building (as well as its predecessor, which was built in 1896 and stood where Sinsegye Department Store is now). This Joongang Ilbo article tells us that
During colonial rule, the building was called Gyeongseong Bucheongsa. Much like today it was the administrative seat of the government of the nation’s capital. Sohn Jung-mok, a professor at the University of Seoul, said the Japanese colonists intentionally constructed the building right across from Deoksu Palace to break the Korean spirit.

“Deoksu Palace was where King Gojeong resided for 22 years until his death in 1919,” Sohn said. The professor said that because Korea had to sign a number of unfair treaties with Japan, students gathered in front of the palace gates to plead to the king. Tension heightened after the March 1 independence movement that brought about a massive nationwide uprising. “The Japanese believed they had to break the spirit of the area that was the origin of the independence drive, as well as the worship of the Joseon King,” Sohn said.
Considering how the Government General building was built to hide Gyeongbok Palace (and it was built in the shape of the first character that makes up 'Japan'), the idea that the Japanese wanted a stern administrative building next to the formerly important palace isn't a stretch. (The article also notes that as of last week, the City Hall building is no longer used by the city for that purpose, as a new city hall is being built). The article also mentions another building - one of the few from that era that still stands, the Bumingwan, currently the Seoul Metropolitan Council building.


Ground was first broken for the building in July 1934 and it was completed in December 1935. Construction was aided by a 1 million won ($977) donation from Gyeongseong Electric. When first built, various cultural performances, including ballet, plays and music concerts, were held at the venue. Later the building was used mostly for political propaganda of the colonial Japanese government.
Bumingwan, left; City Hall, right

As the article notes, the building was the site of a bomb attack by independence activists on July 24, 1945. No one was hurt. After liberation the streets of Seoul would be filled with people celebrating, and as the atmosphere leading up to the Korean War grew darker, there were many street rallies. Many were held in what was Dongdaemun Stadium.

After the war the Bumingwan was used for another purpose. Between 1953 and 1975, it served as the location of the national assembly. Thus it was in front of this building that students, protesting Syngman Rhee's illegitimate election results and brutal treatment of demonstrators in Masan, held a demonstration on April 18, 1960 - the eve of the April students uprising.


Protests on April 19 took place throughout downtown Seoul, near Gwanghwamun and City Hall, at Dongdaemun and on Jongno.


The protesters advanced on the presidents house, where police fired on protesters, killing more than 100 students.


The army refused to side with Rhee and he was forced to step down.


A year later, on May 16, 1961, a different spectacle would be seen in front of City Hall: Park Chung-hee and his soldiers as they took over the government.


Park would rule the country until his assassination in October 1979. As Chun Doo-hwan took over the military in December 1979, and then the Korean CIA in April 1980, students began to protest on Campus and call for the end of martial law, in effect since Park's death. On May 15, the eve of the anniversary of Park Chung-hee's 1961 coup, a massive protest was held in downtown Seoul - the first time in many years students had protested off-campus.

The protesters would make their way to City Hall, as described here. The students then called off further protests and waited for the government's next move. Two days later martial law was extended, politicians arrested, and the national assembly and universities closed. The military's brutal actions in Kwangju on May 18 set off the Kwangju Uprising. With the uprising's suppression, Chun was free to take over the country. Worth noting is that during this time Myeongdong Cathedral provided sanctuary to dissidents. With the ruling party's poor showing in the 1985 national assembly elections, more student protests began to occur on campuses. In January of 1987, Park Jong-cheol, a SNU student, was killed while police were inflicting water torture, as related here (and here is an article about how a lawyer named Roh Moo-hyeon got involved in the case). This led to more criticism of the government, and more protests on campuses. On April 13, 1987 Chun banned all further discussion of constitutional reform until after the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, essentially guaranteeing that his successor in the Democratic Justice Party would become president. This led to more protests, which began to peak after details of Park Jong-cheol's death were released on May 18. The caption for this photo (which I might have titled "modern day stone throwers") at the Hankyoreh: "Protesting the torture of student activist Park Jong-cheol at the hands of police, students at Seoul's Ewha Womans University [sic] wear masks to protect themselves from tear gas at a May 26, 1987 rally, as they hurl rocks at riot police from the university's gate." On June 10, Roh Tae-woo was picked as Chun's successor, which led to almost a month of protests where citizens joined students in the streets. More can be read about the protests here.
Protests at present day Seoul Plaza
Note that Daehanmun can be seen in both photos above.
On June 29 Roh accepted the public's call for direct elections. On July 5, Lee Han-yeol, who had been in a coma since he was injured by a tear gas grenade on June 9, died. "On July 9, more than a million people marched from Yonsei University to Seoul’s City Hall grieving his death," according to an article about his death and his family that can be found here. This essentially marked the end of the June uprising of 1987. Perhaps this mass funeral might remind you of the funeral of Kim Deok-gu, on December 1, 1898? So there we have a (not so brief) history of the use of these public spaces by mass political movements I laid out at the beginning of this post - at least the history of these spaces prior to the World Cup rallies in 2002.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Where can I find a primary or scholarly source that talks about the burning down of Gyeongbok Palace by the Korean populace. The Imjin War book mentioned it, but it did not cite it.

matt said...

Good question - I should cite the Imjin War book in my post. Wikipedia says this: "Parts of Hanseong had already been looted, burnt (i.e. bureaus holding the slave records and the weapons), and abandoned by its inhabitants," which uses Stephen Turnbull's book as a source. There's nothing specifically about Gyeongbokgung, though. After reading Hawley's book I noticed that whenever you read about the palaces' destruction in the war the phrase would invariably read "was burned during the Japanese invasion" - not "burned by the Japanese."

Mark Russell said...

Great post, Matt. One of your best yet. I am constantly amazed by your research.