June 17, 2008

South Korea’s New Generation of ‘Web 2.0′ Protesters

By Choe Sang-Hun

In June 1987, Seoul's City Hall Plaza reverberated with a chant that signaled the end of military rule in South Korea: "Dokjetado!" or "Down with the dictatorship!" In June this year, the plaza has once again become a rallying point for crowds calling for the removal of an unpopular government: "Out with Lee Myung Bak!"

But the similarity ends there. And in those differences lies the challenge for Lee and anyone else engaged in politics in this very highly wired country, where the Internet has merged with South Koreans' penchant for street demonstrations.

"The Internet fits Koreans' quick-paced temperament," said Kim Il Young, a political scientist at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. "As you have seen recently, when the nation's world-class Internet infrastructure, its nationalism and its hot tempo all come together, you have a major conflagration."

In the 1980s, streets around the plaza lighted up with orange flames as students and the police clashed, trading firebombs for tear gas. The military dictators had a clear-cut enemy; they arrested activist leaders.

In contrast, the people jamming the same streets this month looked almost like cheerful holidaygoers on a mass picnic - teenagers in school uniforms, mothers pushing baby carriages, fathers with children on their shoulders, singing and shouting slogans.

And the police investigating who organized the country's biggest anti-government protests in two decades ended up in the cyberspace. When Lee agreed in April to lift a five-year-old import ban on U.S. beef despite widespread fears that the meat might not be safe from mad cow disease, it quickly became a hot topic on the Internet, first among teenage girls gathering at fan Web sites for television personalities and later at Agora, a popular online discussion forum at the Web portal Daum.

There, people suggested that they stop just talking and take to the streets. When a high school student began a campaign on Agora calling for Lee's impeachment, it gathered 1.3 million signatures within a week. The police were caught off-guard on May 2 when thousands of teenagers networking through Agora and coordinating via text messages poured into central Seoul, holding candles and chanting "No to mad cow!"

The mainstream media and the government ignored them at first. But protesters stepped forward as "citizen reporters," conducting interviews, taking photographs and, thanks to the country's high- speed wireless Internet, uploading videos on their blogs and Internet forums. One video showing the police beating a female protester caused outrage on the Internet and prompted even more people to join the demonstrations.

"We cannot trust mainstream media reports on mad cow disease, so we're taking matters into our own hands," said Suh Dong Ho, 32, a photographer who helped organize a group of 160 "citizen reporters."

Kim Joo Hyung, Suh's 15-year-old colleague, said: "What we do is faster and more real than the ordinary news media."

As the rallies grew, the traditional organizers of anti- government demonstrations - civic groups, labor unions and opposition parties - joined the fray. They distributed candles, coffee, snacks and anti-government placards but appeared to take back seats, having never led such a disparate crowd. Members from Agora and other online communities joined the rallies carrying their own flags. One such group consisted of young women who shared a liking for miniskirts.

Dozens of Web sites have been offering live broadcasts of the demonstrations. Some hired BJs - "broadcast jockeys" - to enliven the action.

"We demonstrators are like cockroaches. We never disappear. We keep crawling out. We are a scourge to Lee Myung Bak," Choi Han Wook, a broadcast jockey at 615TV, a progressive Internet Web site, said on-air from a makeshift broadcasting center at Seoul City Plaza.

Local pundits dubbed the phenomenon variously as "street democracy,""digital populism" or "Web 2.0 protest."

Whatever it was, Lee was clearly the victim. Last week, his entire cabinet offered to resign.

In a sense, Lee is struggling with a legacy from South Korea's past. Even decades after the end of military rule, the public's mistrust of authority runs so deep that many still consider street demonstrations the best way to make their voices heard.

The fact that most major political upheavals in recent years - bringing down dictatorship, effecting democratic reforms - came amid popular uprisings has given South Korean citizens an unusually strong sense that they are in charge, not the president or Parliament.

When South Koreans felt their pride wounded by Lee's beef deal and his leadership style, they decided to snub him. "Mad cow" became the adjective for a blizzard of complaints against Lee's government: "mad cow education,""mad cow labor policy" and "mad cow health care."

Young protesters who felt their president was out of touch sarcastically called Lee "2MB" - a hopelessly slow 2-megabyte speed of computer processing and also Lee's initials. ("Two" is pronounced "Lee" in Korean).

"Shut up! Just do as we say and renegotiate the beef deal!" read one common poster summarizing the protesters' attitude toward Lee.

In South Korea, street demonstrations have always been a mix of festivity and violence. The rallies that have taken place over the past month come with music and dance troupes. Over the past weekend, the main boulevards of central Seoul turned into motor vehicle-free zones as people marched and held concerts and theatrical performances. Families sat on the asphalt and ate snacks. Street vendors sold roast squid and "2MB OUT!" T-shirts.

But some frown on the mob mentality the Internet can foster. "In the online discussions on beef, you are welcome only if you voice a certain opinion, and you're attacked if you represent an opposing view," said Kim, the political scientist. "I doubt the debate is rational."

One scientifically unproven claim that circulated on the Internet was that Koreans have a gene that make them particularly susceptible to mad cow disease. Many teenage protesters said during interviews that they suspected Lee of conspiring to supply cheap but tainted American beef for school lunches.

During the Saturday rally, a high school girl took the microphone and said before the crowd: "I drove four hours to join this rally because I don't want to die."

Chung Sun Hee, a popular comedian, was forced to quit three radio and TV programs after her comment, which was construed as hostile to the anti-beef demonstrators, triggered a flood of hate mail to her employers and commercial sponsors. Protesters also flooded companies with phone calls warning of product boycotts if they did not withdraw ads from the country's three main conservative dailies, whose editorials urged "reason and rationality."

"This protest has turned into a rally for political demagoguery," said Seo Kyong Seok, a Christian pastor who held a one-man protest near City Hall Plaza against beef demonstrators.

Choi See Joong, chairman of the Broadcasting and Communications Commission, said the government had no immediate plans to intervene to stop what critics called false information on the Internet.

"For me, this is a hot potato," said Choi, a close confidant of Lee. "For now, when I watch the candlelight protests, I try not to see its political meanings. Instead, I try to see the positive side of young people's passion on the Internet."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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