One of the most valuable aspects of my time in Korea so far has been getting to meet and work with Korean activists. Since I first began learning about the Korean social movement, I’ve been interested in the differences between activism in Korea and the US; unlike in the US, where people constantly cycle in and out of their activism, it’s normal to see Korean activists dedicate their life to the cause (for example, seven years, which would be enough to earn you respect in the US context, is enough to prove you have some interest in activism in Korea). Through this series, I hope to shed further light on the inner workings of the Korean social movement by profiling the people who make it all possible.
My first interview of the series is with황정은(Hwang Jeong-eun), the communications coordinator for the International Strategy Center. She has been working for the organization since 2010. Her work has included assisting with the translations of Latin America and 21st Century Socialism and Food Policy for People from English to Korean. As someone who has long had ties to the social movement but only recently decided to make it her central focus a few years ago, she’s a relative newcomer to the activist lifestyle, so I was particularly interested in hearing what it was that had inspired her to do so.
What first inspired your interest in activism and the Korean social movement?
I didn’t have an interest in it when I was a student, especially middle and early high school. Then when I was in high school, one of my sisters entered university, at which time she joined the student movement. At the time, she spent almost all of her time at school, and I also stayed at school, so we couldn’t meet that often. But when I entered university, I met her often and I could see what she was doing.
My sister was the one that exposed me to the movement. At first it was just listening to what she told me. She told me stories that I couldn’t hear on TV or the radio, or even from books or the professors at my school. Then, she invited me to meet the people around her. For example, she invited me to an event where all the student activists from each province gathered together. Seeing so many students protesting against what they thought were injustices and demanding justice was kind of a cultural shock. So that was really… I felt different. I could see the difference between the world I thought was real and the world that I was actually living in. Little by little, my sister exposed me to other worlds that the mainstream media didn’t show me. Then, when she graduated from university, she started work with the Korean Peasant League (KPL). Sometimes they participated in international solidarity work, so I helped translate into English when the staff from other countries came to Korea to meet the KPL. So at that time I could see that more people – not just students, and not only Koreans, but international people as well – are working for social change. But the first inspiration I had in this work was from my sister.
My second source of inspiration comes from Haesook Kim [the founder of the ISC]. My sister introduced me to Haesook in 2008, because I could speak English and Haesook wanted to focus on international solidarity. Through her, I started to realize that I was caught in the middle, ideologically. I called myself gray, because I had one foot in one side, another in another side. For example, in college, I majored in American trade and commerce. When I studied these things, I believed everything my professor told me about economics and capitalism, or that was the right way. But then when I met my sister or Haesook, they said something completely different, which is that free trade is not fair because there is hegemony, militarism, imperialism, and so on. When I heard that, I thought that seemed right, too. Haesook helped me to realize that I didn’t have any stance; I just went back and forth. When I realized that, it felt weird, like I didn’t have any opinions of my own, which was hard to face. But she helped me to see that it’s about choice. She taught me that if I don’t help this person, if I don’t choose one side, that’s also the choice that I don’t choose, and that I don’t help that person. She posed the questions that made me think, and when I realized that I was stuck in the middle, and I should make a decision which way to follow, she helped guide me on that path. She’s still guiding me.
What was a particularly important moment to your politicization?
That period [of not being able to pick a side] was… I think it was the whole of university, so from 2001 until at least to 2010. So for about 10 years. At that time, I asked someone, “Why are you in the social movement?” And she said she had this pain in her heart when she sees injustice, or when she sees the people suffering from injustice. At that time I couldn’t understand what kind of feeling that was. Like, what pain in the heart? And then, in 2011, there was a national demonstration around 8/15 (Korean Independence Day). Every year there is a big demonstration in Korea. And at that time there was one man on the stage from Jeju island. He was talking about Gangjong Village and the naval base. The problem had started four years ago, and it had been four years that Ganjong Village suffered from the problem. And when he said that, and explained the situation in Gangjong – at that time, I could feel the pain. I was listening, and he was almost crying – and then it felt like an arrow that went through my body, giving me pain. Because I didn’t know that all that had happened. People in Jeju island suffered for four years, and I didn’t know about it. So I think that moment was very important for me. And that time, I understood why people work so hard in the social movement. I think that was the third inspiration that caused me to join the social movement.
Why do you believe international solidarity is an important issue to focus on?
The relationship between people is the most important thing, but people who are living in the capitalist society can’t see [those] relationships well. The capitalist system tries to cut all the natural ties that people have to each other. So I think it’s important to remind people to see that we are all connected. If there is a problem in Korea, it’s not only limited [to] Korea, it’s connected to all other countries as well. And the problems in other countries can affect Korea as well. So the way to solve this problem is to build solidarity with people among all of the countries. Since we are all connected, if the problem is solved in only one country, it doesn’t mean that every country’s problem is solved. The goal should not be about making Korea the best in the world, but rather about allowing every one to live well together. So I think it’s important to see the connection between people and between countries. In Korean education, you’re taught that you have to be the best to be a successful person. But if you start to see things as connected, you cannot live well by yourself. You have to have people around you. It’s about cooperation, not competition.
What is your favorite memory of working in the social movement?
There are a couple of them. The first memory that comes to mind is when we had a candlelight vigil and demonstration in 2008 protesting the importing of mad cow beef. At that time, I wasn’t working for the ISC and I didn’t call myself an activist, but I participated in the action with my sister. There were a lot of people, and we occupied the whole road in Chongno, so that no cars could pass. At that time I felt so good. And a similar thing happened last month, at a protest for Sewolho in September. People were trying to make it to Gwanghwamun Square, but the police cars were blocking their way. It was pouring rain, but people kept shouting, and refused to leave, because they wanted to stay with the victims’ families. So I stayed as well, and I also shouted at the police. But in both of these memories, because we were all together, that made us powerful. So I think my favorite memories are of when I participated in demonstrations, because at that time I could feel the power of the people. I’m actually very easily frightened, so I usually don’t break any laws. I don’t even cross the street when it’s a red light, because I’m afraid that one policeman will see me and say, “You broke the law!” I’m that easily frightened. But when I’m with other people like that, I don’t feel that fear, because we’re together.
How do you sustain your political commitment, and how do you overcome the difficulties that come with living a sustained existence to struggle?
Up until last year, I was working in a hagwon, and I was always busy then. There were classes I had to teach, but I also had to call tons of parents to talk about their kids. So it was really difficult because there is only one reason I did it – I loved teaching, but I did that work for the money. So I couldn’t find a lot of value in the work I did. The teaching part I loved, but the rest was so difficult. And sometimes it even felt like I was going in the wrong direction. Like, I felt that it’s not a good way to educate kids, but I had to do it, because the hagwon wanted me to do it and I had to do it in order to get paid. So at the time I could make enough money, but I wasn’t happy at all. Then, I quit my job and started to work at the ISC. Sometimes I think it’s busier – like, I have a lot more work. Sometimes I work during the weekend, and I go home late. But I know why I do it. And I know the value my work has. So having that belief gives me the strength to go through these physical difficulties. And if I have some questions or concerns, there are always people around me I can count on. The relationships at my workplace before were good but they weren’t deep. We got along well, we went on trips together, we talked about a lot about work, but it was hard for us – me, especially – to share deep questions or ideas. But now, working in the ISC, if I have questions, they are always open to sharing and talking about our thoughts. I think that’s helped me make it through the difficulties.
It’s very hard work though. To be honest, sometimes, I feel very tired, and I don’t want to do this work. There was even a time that I felt like – what am I doing? Am I doing the right thing, or… is it possible for us to do these things? But then, you can go back to history, to people who lived through history. For example, during the age of slavery – slaves didn’t know when they would get freedom, but some of them were working for freedom, even though they didn’t know if they would live to see the result. So it’s important for me to contribute to the path going forward. Right now I cannot see the outcome, but I believe that I am contributing or that I am helping the way to progress. But there are moments, still I have moments, where I wonder if this work that I do right now, that makes me tired – is it worth doing? Still there are times. But then I ask the others – I have this kind of questions, I have this kind of concern – and the people around me give me some advice, or strength, so that I can move on. That’s what I call “people insurance.” I think [international solidarity] is a very big issue. It’s going to be a very long way. And it’s not a rosy road. But, I think – I believe it’s worth doing. And I hope I can contribute – even a little – to progress.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in political work or as an activist, and how did you learn it?
I think that it’s all about relationships. Before, I pursued other things in my life, like economic stability, or providing for my own family, and no one else. But after working in the movement, I started to learn that there are more important things than money, or my own family – my family’s still very important to me, but it ‘s not more important – it has an equal level of importance. I think I learned this because at first, other people in the movement showed me. They showed me with their actions. They weren’t my family, and they weren’t even my friends at first, but when they met me, they made me feel like I was their family. There was no calculation in the relationship, like whether the relationship would have any kind of benefit for them. So that made me think that if society were full of this kind of people who know the value of relationships, then the world would be a much better place than it is now. These days, in the case of my friends who are working in companies, they sometimes talk about how their relationships with their coworkers are so shallow, so they don’t want to meet them after work or during the weekend. So to my friends, I try to explain that there is a different kind of relationship that people can have, based on shared values, or thought, or even life. But it’s hard for people in modern society to have that kind of relationship. I hope that other people can have more meaningful, deep relationships, so they can feel like they belong to something to something somewhere. I think that’s the most important lesson.
How can people who want to support the Korean social movement provide support?
I think being a part of the social movement is also people who want to change society into a better world. And I think that to change society, we have to change ourselves as well. People, wherever they are, who want to support the social movement, whether in their own country or for other country, they can start from small things. They can start small in their daily life by reading the newspaper and they can start telling other people about what they’ve read. And while they’re doing those things, they’ll meet people who have the same interests. And that’s how community’s made. As they’re doing those things, they’ll learn more about domestic issues, and then they will know they’re not the only ones fighting against injustice or discrimination. And they will continue to meet other people, until finally they meet international society. So, they can start small, and that will lead to people who can help them and lead them further.
 The village of Gangjong on Jeju island has been resisting the US military plans to build a naval base there for the past four years.