August Issue Special Article: Communication Methods of the Korean Democracy Movement of the 1970-80s –-------- A Look Back from the Age of SNS

Chang-Seon Yu / Political Commentator



The course of the civic revolution in Egypt that succeeded for the time being by toppling Mubarak last February fully displayed the power of SNS (social network service). When we look back, this revolution in Egypt was triggered with a call to hold a rally made through Facebook by a youth group. As numerous Facebook users actively responded to this call, rally-related information and messages were posted one after another on Facebook and Twitter, and the number of citizens seeking SNS continued to grow. In addition, the Google executive Wael Ghonim who has emerged as a new hero of the civic revolution in Egypt opened the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” to pay tribute to the 29-year-old businessman who was beaten to death by the police in June 2010 because he posted on the Internet a video showing police officers taking spoils from a drug bust. And with several hundred thousand people joining as friends to show support, this became the base for the anti-Mubarak movement. The Egyptian people, armed with new weapons – the Internet and mobile phone, shared through Facebook and Twitter reports on protest situations in real time and banded together. In an interview by the US television network CBS, Wael Ghonim gave his diagnosis that the revolution would never have been sparked if there were no social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Also, in a speech given at George Washington University shortly after Mubarak’s resignation, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the following:

…And the world, on TVs, laptops, cell phones, and smart phones, had followed every single step. Pictures and videos from Egypt flooded the web. On Facebook and Twitter, journalists posted on-the-spot reports. Protestors coordinated their next moves. And citizens of all stripes shared their hopes and fears about this pivotal moment in the history of their country….Millions worldwide answered in real time, “You are not alone and we are with you.”


Citizens with a New Weapon in Their Hands, the Mobile Phone


And so SNS, represented by Facebook and Twitter, became a new weapon of communication for the citizens during the course of the Egyptian people’s revolution. Taken aback by the power of SNS, the Mubarak regime cut off the Internet and shut down access to Facebook and Twitter, but the citizens broke through this wall of blockade by mobilizing the new technology of the mobile phone. Ultimately Mubarak gave in and Egypt’s SNS was restored after a few days.


SNS not only unified the citizens of Egypt but also moved the world’s opinion by enabling people around the globe to watch in real time what was happening in Egypt. And this provided the momentum for pressuring Mubarak to resign. By watching Al Jazeera broadcast uploaded on YouTube, we could monitor in real time the situation in Cairo at the dawn of the day Mubarak stepped down from power and was leaving Cairo. In our living rooms in Korea, we were also able to join together with the citizens of Cairo to witness this historical moment. Observing the course of Egyptian civic revolution where the citizens communicated and connected through SNS, I thought about how history would have changed had there been SNS in Korea in 1980.

At the time the news of the atrocity committed by the martial law troops shooting down Gwangju citizens and brutally suppressing them did not get out to the rest of the country because of the blackout from the martial law command censorship. With the truth of the atrocity that took place in Gwangju in May 1980 covered up, it was possible for the new military power led by Chun Doo Hwan to take over the government. Such a scene cannot be imagined now. If SNS had been available at the time, the atrocity of Gwangju would have been made known nationwide in real time and the movement demanding democratization and stepping down of the new military power group would have spread throughout the nation. Of course it would have been impossible for the new military regime to assume power in such a situation. Although it was only 30 years ago, what happened was made possible in a world without the Internet and SNS.


Communication by Bathroom Wall Graffiti


So what communication tools were available to Korea’s democracy movement of the 1970-80s when there was no SNS? During that period when we participated in the democracy movement against the military regime, what did the students and citizens use to communicate and build public opinion? Even in that era there were diverse communication and publicity tools. Students or citizens exchanged opinions and made their views known through printed flyers, hand-written posters, and pamphlets, and they even used bathroom graffiti. In order to understand the communication tools used at that time, we need to first understand the circumstances that forced the use of such tools. Warlike atmosphere pervaded the college campuses in the late 1970s when the Yushin regime was still in place. Groups of plain-clothes police roamed all over the campuses and were always on guard for possible student demonstrations. Countless eyes of surveillance lurked everywhere inside the campuses seeking signs of anti-government actions such as distributing flyers. In such circumstances it was impossible for students to reveal their opinions through normal channels. So the method used most was surreptitiously placing flyers out of sight of the police and quickly disappearing or dumping flyers in the open and immediately hiding. Of course there were risks of getting caught. Since the police surveillance was so forbidding, the method of criticizing the government through writing graffiti on bathroom walls was also used a great deal. At the time, on the bathroom walls of colleges were found countless anti-government graffiti. The pent-up anger of the students against the stark reality was vented in the form of graffiti. That the bathroom graffiti became pervasive owes to the fact that it could be done in a space where no one could watch and thus one’s safety was guaranteed.


1980 Spring of Democracy and Communication by Hand-Written Posters

 Of the communication methods that swept college campuses of the 1980s, the hand-written poster is most notable. It is common now to have hand-written posters expressing various student opinions up on college bulletin boards, but the appearance of hand-written posters in the 1980s grabbed attention. Of course during the Yushin regime, up to 1979, we could not even dream about hand-written posters. But with the death of President Park Chung Hee on October 26, 1979, who was shot by Kim Jae Kyu, the Yushin regime crumbled and the “Spring of Democracy” arrived in 1980 for a brief stay. During this period countless hand-written posters freely expressing positions and opinions regarding the affairs of state were put up all over college campuses. It was a moving time when the freedom of press that had been taken away returned and the path of free speech opened up. The numerous hand-written posters put up on college campuses grabbed the attention of students, and with these posters providing focal points, the students engaged in diverse exchanges and discussions. Inevitably the communication through hand-written posters made possible during the “Spring of Democracy” disappeared with the emergence of the new military power group after May 18th and the return of cold political winter. Also during this time, booklets and sourcebooks on current state of affairs were secretly sold through bookstores near college campuses. Numerous democracy movement groups sold through these bookstores the sourcebooks they produced themselves, and the bookstore owners while selling such books often suffered from search and seizure raids by the police. An interesting tool among the 1980s communication tools was the so-called ‘document.’ Also known as ‘pamphlet,’ it was read within the organizations leading the student movement and contained mostly positions on the direction and political line of the democracy movement at the time. The communication through such ‘pamphlet’ was not shared by the general students but its influence was substantial within the groups leading the student movement.

When we look back, the communication methods used by the Korean democracy movement of the 1970 -80s required painstaking efforts. Now we are able to openly express our opinions and communicate without hesitation through tools like SNS, but in that period when the path of open communication was cut off, difficult means had to be mobilized. Like the old saying “if without teeth, chew with your gums,” the people who participated in the democracy movement at the time used whatever was left to communicate with fellow students or citizens and risked arrest and incarceration to end dictatorship and bring democracy to Korea. Seeing communication through SNS as an integral part of the Egyptian civic revolution today, I am reminded of how it was with us in the 1970-80s.