Re-imagining global Korea: the art of protest and social change

As the protesters in Hong Kong continue to make their voices heard, society becomes increasingly aware of how important it is to educate ourselves on the changes and developments outside of our own countries. A protest in a country such as China or unincorporated territories such as Puerto Rico have a ripple effect that can impact countries on the other side of the world – or ones close by. This past spring students in Dr. Jennifer Chun’s class at UCLA chose to edit articles on the history of protest in Korea and how this has led to social changes – or raised awareness that change needs to occur.

On the first day of 1995 people began to gather at the Myeong-dong Cathedral. They came with the knowledge that they would be there for many days, as many as it would take to reach their goals. So began the 1995 Myeong-Dong migrant labor protest, which lasted a total of nine days and opposed the Industrial Trainee System (ITS), which they stated systematically produced a population of vulnerable, bottom-tier migrant workers in the labor market. Thirteen Nepalese migrant workers, who were previously contracted under the ITS, arrived in South Korea in hopes of escaping the poverty in their own country. However their hopes were dashed when employers withheld wages for over six months and then beat and abused them when the workers demanded to receive their wages directly. During the protest the demonstrators shackled their necks with iron chains, exposing their struggles as migrant laborers and drawing a parallel to slavery. They were soon joined by others, especially grassroots religious organizations, who protested in solidarity. In response to the protest the state acknowledged the systematic issues from the ITS and changed the Labor Standards Law to include migrant workers and industrial trainees contracted by the ITS in legislation regarding industrial accidents, medical insurances, and minimum wage arrangements. However it should be noted that this still did not address the issues of toxic and inhumane working conditions and the production cycle of unauthorized workers. This realization eventually led to the creation of the Migrant Workers’ Support Movement (MWSM) and Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea (JCMK).

Along with migrant workers, women are also at risk of being exploited for labor – something not limited to any one particular country. Women have been organizing to address workplace issues such as unequal pay and workplace violence as early as the 1880s. In 2006, several women gathered together to join their male coworkers in the South Korean KTX Train Attendant Union Strike, which protested the hiring practices of irregular workers. The women also protested against sexual harassment they had experienced in their workplace. The majority of the men from the KRWU (the union for the KTX workers) stopped protesting after 4 days; however, the women continued their strike. Over the course of 12 years, many workers dropped out of the strike; however, 180 continued until 2018 when the Railway Workers’ Union and Korea Railroad Corporation came to an agreement in which these 180 of the crew members were reinstated.

The following years also included protests, as demonstrators gathered for both the Hyehwa Station Protest in 2016 as well as the Yellow Ribbon Campaign and Sewol Ferry Protest Movement in 2014. The Hyehwa Station Protest was formed to protest against the discrimination of women and crimes involving spy cameras, also known as molka. Many of these spy camera cases go unreported or undetected, and those that are reported typically do not lead to prison sentences. The Yellow Ribbon Campaign and Sewol Ferry Protest Movement occurred after the Sewol Ferry sinking, where about 63% of the people on board the ferry died after the ship capsized and several crew members abandoned it and its passengers. Many of these deaths occurred as a result of the crew ordering passengers to remain in their cabins and not alerting them to the evacuation of the ship. In the days following the sinking it was also discovered that the ship was in poor shape and was carrying over twice its maximum limit of cargo, which was also not secured properly. The regular ferry captain had warned the ship’s owners, Chonghaejin Marine, of this but was met with hostility and threats of losing his job. The yellow ribbon became a prevalent symbol in South Korea. Its significance evolved during the course of the protest, as people began to realize that many did not survive and the gathering focus turned from mourning and hopes of return to activism and democratization. In 2017, three years after the Sewol Ferry Sinking, the former president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, was removed from office. During the months leading up to this event, the yellow symbols of Sewol commemoration were always present on political slogans and impeachment demonstrations.

Wikipedia has a wealth of knowledge, however the site cannot grow without users contributing and correcting information to the site. A Wikipedia writing assignment is a wonderful way to teach your students about technical writing, collaboration, and sourcing in a unique learning environment. If you are interested in using Wikipedia with your next class, visit to find out how you can gain access to tools, online trainings, and printed materials.

Header/thumbnail image by Republic of Korea Government, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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