Can’t Be Okay

‘Doing all right?’ protest spreads in South Korea

Social movement asks students and working people to freely express political grievances on public message boards

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South Korea
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In early December, Ju Hyun-u, a student at South Korea’s elite Korea University, taped up two white sheets filled with his handwriting on a campus bulletin board. His message began with a question, “Are you doing all right?”

Ju Hyun-u's poster, which began it all.
Can’t Be Okay

Ju’s poster listed a raft of national issues, beginning with the layoffs of more than 4,000 striking railway workers. He then questioned the Korean government’s attempts to unseat opposition lawmakers and imprison its critics and wrote about the elderly villager who committed suicide to protest a nuclear-powered utility project in the southern city of Miryang. Ju appealed to his fellow students. Given all these societal problems, could they stand idly by? He asked again, “Are you doing all right?” and signed his name.

What happened next was nothing short of remarkable.

Within days, the walls at Korea University and other universities were lined with dozens of additional posters. Messages proliferated nationwide. On the "Can't Be Okay" Facebook page that Ju created with a fellow student, submissions flew in at the rate of two to three a minute. Signed by people from all walks of life, the posters brimmed with impassioned testimony and political arguments. By mid-December, Miryang villagers who had traveled to Seoul to protest the power plant project found themselves cheered on by hundreds of young people who arrived in the freezing cold to hear them speak. At rallies against rail privatization, citizens took the stage alongside railway workers to voice their support for the strike.

In a nation where relentless economic competition and rising social inequality are growing concerns, Ju’s question has become a release valve for the discontent of his generation and beyond.

South Korea protest
This young man’s poster reads, “While the cost of living and tuition are going up, even though I work, it’s not enough to live, and I have no time to rest. This is why I am not fine.”
Can’t Be Okay

“It’s only been a month so far, but one change that everyone is talking about is the mistaken perception that my generation did not care about politics,” said Suknam Kang, a student at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “Through this poster movement, it became obvious that a lot of students have always been concerned with social and political issues. All they needed was an opportunity to directly engage in some way.”

While it may be too soon to call this a turning point, many agree that the events of the past month demonstrate an unusually large and engaged level of political participation by many South Koreans — many for the first time.

The posters have tackled a diverse range of controversial topics, and one of the most frequent targets is state interference in the 2012 presidential election. Last year prosecutors found that intelligence agents and military officials had, using fake accounts, posted more than 1 million online messages favoring current president Park Geun-hye and smearing her rivals prior to the election. 

Through this poster movement, it became obvious that a lot of students have always been concerned with social and political issues. All they needed was an opportunity to directly engage in some way.

Suknam Kang

Chung-Ang University student

Park denied that these activities had any effect on her winning margin of 1 million votes, but amid calls for her to step down or appoint an independent prosecutor, the administration filed to disband a leftist opposition party and accused lawmakers and citizens of espionage.

For many, such moves raise the specter of Korea’s dictatorial past, including the 18-year presidency of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, whose authoritarian legacy is highly contested.

When high school student Sehun Park read Ju’s poster, he reacted strongly. “In a single stroke, the belief that I was fine was shattered,” he said. “Like any ordinary high school student, I thought studying was the most important thing. But aren’t I a member of this society too?” Park subsequently joined a continuous vigil held for more than two weeks in central Kwangju. He was protesting, among other issues, textbook revisions ordered by the Ministry of Education that he believes whitewash unsavory aspects of Korean history. “I may not be able to vote, but it doesn’t mean I can’t say anything,” he said.

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At Sungkonghoe University, student Eunha Kang hung a poster describing the worsening conditions she faces in Korea as a transgender woman, as a bisexual, as a young person and as someone from the working class. “We all have many names. But no matter what name you call me by, I am not fine,” she wrote.

The movement spread to Koreans abroad. Boston University theology student Heuiseung Lee gathered signatures from pastors and fellow students for a “We are not fine” declaration that was read at a worship service on campus. “There’s been so little news about this here,” he said. “People need to know.” In Vancouver, British Columbia, Byoungjin Na posted a letter online asking people to gather downtown. It read, “Aren’t I doing well in Canada? No, I am not fine.”

South Korea protest
Countless posters appeared in the subway. Here, Korean university students carry a poster reading, “Mass layoffs, safety accident, local lines cut from service = rail privatization. Are you doing all right? We support the rail workers’ strike.”
Can’t Be Okay

As the poster movement took off, tensions escalated on Dec. 22 when riot police and SWAT teams stormed the headquarters of the national confederation of unions to arrest rail-union leaders. In a widely televised 12-hour raid, viewers watched police wield pepper spray and break glass doors. The raid resulted in more than 130 arrests, but no railway-union leaders were found in the building. The confederation’s subsequent call for a general strike on Dec. 28 was echoed by a parallel call of support from the poster movement. Tens of thousands of people packed Seoul’s central plazas and nearby streets in a daylong schedule of rallies, flash mobs and candlelight vigils. More general strikes are planned for 2014.

The enthusiastic adoption of the old-fashioned, handwritten poster is striking in the world’s most wired country. But the posters also hark back to the 1970s and 1980s, when they were widely seen on college campuses, then centers of political organizing against military dictatorship. The difference is that today the posters are given a far-reaching second life through social media.

The official response to the poster movement has been mixed. By mid-December, the Ministry of Education had advised middle and high schools to maintain a “comfortable and stable” academic atmosphere in light of certain students’ disruptive political activities. The national teachers’ union criticized this as an attempt to stifle students’ freedom of expression. At Chung-Ang University, where striking maintenance workers had created posters, the school asked the courts to fine the workers nearly $1,000 (almost equivalent to their monthly wage) for each poster they put up on campus. In response, students like Suknam hung posters reading, “This poster is worth $1,000.”

Now as the movement continues to unfold, participants are bracing themselves for increased confrontation and are ready to consider more-coordinated action. Last weekend, participants from around the country gathered in Seoul for a first national meeting. Eunha Kang, the transgender student whose poster catapulted her into the national spotlight, said, “I can't change the world only through words, but I think this poster provided a precious opportunity.”