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.”