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The Tuition Struggle: College Takeover [I Was a Follower of Juche – #4]

June 19, 2013

Read in Korean

How the pro-North faction used the issue of tuition hikes to appeal to a larger audience and gain influence with college students is the subject of the fourth installment of the series, “Understanding the Pro-North Faction – I was a Follower of Juche” (종북주의 해부하기 – 나는 주사파였다). As with many of the founders of NKnet, Lee Kwang Baek — now the head of Radio Free Chosun — previously had supported North Korea and its Juche ideology. This column originally appeared on pages 48-49 of the December 2011 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of NKnet intern Jenni Jung.

Student councils at public universities across the country organized a protest at Seoul National University over unfair tuition hikes. (Yonhap photo)
March 1989. It wasn’t the spring wind that melted away the winter snow. Rather, it was the heated protests against tuition hikes, an impassioned struggle that hit colleges nationwide like a tornado. Upperclassmen went from classroom to classroom, appealing to students to join a “collective shutdown” (동맹휴업) of campus.

Throughout our campus rang slogans like, “I sold greens to send my kid to school, what’s this talk of a tuition hike!” Banners bloomed around campus like spring flowers. They would read along the lines of: “Let’s bring about academic self-reliance through collective shutdown that’s as tough as steel.” The upperclassmen also came to speak at freshmen lecture rooms in the Law Department. Standing at the lectern, the law department student representative said:

“If you come from the countryside, please raise your hand.”

About half raised their hands. We were at a regional college in the breadbasket of the nation, so it was only natural that many students had come from farming villages. It was rare to find anyone among these students who did not find the increases in college tuition stifling and burdensome.

“My mother turns 67 this year. She wakes up at five in the morning. As soon as she wakes up she washes and cooks the rice, and then goes out to begin work in a still unlit field wet with the morning dew. Her kneecaps are so worn that whenever she rises, they click into and out of place. She says it hurts terribly. Stumbling, she finishes a portion of the work at dawn, comes back home at seven to wake her children up, then feeds them and sends them to school. Without a moment’s rest she goes back into the fields again. Dragging that wretched leg of hers she labors under the scorching midday sun. can no longer. Soon it’s sundown, and she works until it’s too dark to tell the peppers’ colors apart and can’t pick them any longer. My father passed away from cancer when I was young. Since then, my mother has been crawling about like a bug in the fields for the past 10 years, but has managed to send my brother and me to college.”

Occupying the Main Office to Protest Tuition Hikes

Students from the countryside began thinking about their poor mothers toiling in the fields. A few students hung their heads in shame and in sadness. The student representative continued.

“To me, my tuition is my mother’s sweat and tears. Her bones grow wearier day by day, and her blood runs dry with every passing minute. The school says they will raise our tuition for the 1989 school year by 13%. How long till my mother’s bones break? How long till her blood runs dry?”

A few students eyes welled up with tears and a few let those tears drop to the floor.

“This school doesn’t just belong to the school administration. Professors and students have a stake in this school, too. We cannot accept the administration’s unilateral decision to raise the tuition by 13%. The student council offers a compromise, an increase of 5%. Let us unite in this struggle to bring down this unilateral policy. The student council has decided to collectively not attend school until our demands are accepted. Fellow students, please join us!”

Students nervously glanced at their professors. I hesitated. I did not know what to do. Another student council member who had followed the representative exhorted us:

“New students, let us all participate in this collective shutdown!”

At that, students rose from their creaking desks and chairs and slunk out of the classroom in a line. Buried in the crowd with my friends, I, too, rose and exited the classroom. It was our way of expressing our willingness to participate in the collective strike. The seniors in the student council made us gather in the lobby of the Law Department building. At the seniors’ request, we all sat down on the lobby floor. Soon after, Law Department students shuffled us into organized and tidy rows. They carried a flag and headed toward the main administrative building. There were 500 students in the Law Department, but that day less than 15 people followed the flag into the main building. Walking in the last part of the line, I wanted to know where all my friends and seniors were. I slightly regretted following this meager line. But as we approached the main building, I heard the sound of the battle hymn and slogans and my doubts and regrets melted away.

We arrived at the main building. Around 300 to 400 students had already gathered. At the instruction of the student council, we students entered the main administrative building. We occupied every single space from the president, vice-president, and dean’s offices right down to the office of student affairs. We pushed the couches and tables to one side of the room, and sat in that space shouting our slogans: “Let’s Squash the One-sided Tuition Increase ”, “Let’s make educational self-sufficiency a reality through our strong collective strike”. At each protest the fervor of the farming songs helped keep the early spring chills away.

Training to be Student Activists via Tuition Hike Protests

“While 30 million slept, we were awake / the day when our farmer brothers cried, we bit our fingers in promise / there are brothers who sing the truth.”

The sit-in protests in the main administrative building continued until mid-June, when students dispersed and went home on vacation. Freshmen participated in the tuition struggle protested during the day and studied and debated with each other at night. At the time I read ideological books such as In Search of Roots: Excluded Lives (소외된 삶의 뿌리를 찾아서), The Laborer’s Philosophy (노동자의 철학), the Biography of Jeon Tae-Il (전태일 평전), A History of Crimes Committedby U.S. Soldiers in Korea (주한민군 범죄사), A Re-written Contemporary History of Korea (다시쓰는 한국현대사). Upperclassmen and freshmen would gather late into the night around makgeolli (traditional rice-based wine) and kimchi. The freshmen would chatter about college life, relationship problems, and family problems. The seniors would give them well-meaning and stinging advice. To the freshmen, the seniors emphasized the role intellectuals had to play in helping the people under the oppression of the dictatorship.

They talked of the mission young students had to carry out in our poor nation groaning under division and foreign occupation. Most of the 10 or so freshmen from the law school who participated in the tuition struggle became student council members, as well as members of the student activist group. After three months, some of them proclaimed that they would devote their youth to anti-American, anti-dictatorship democratization, and national unification. I was one of these students.

This was the result of having participated in the “tuition struggle,” which was a simple reaction to an unfair increase in tuition. It was also the result of a “student-driven self-sufficiency struggle,” (학원자주화투쟁) the simple belief that as students are also stakeholders, they ought to fight to defend their rights.

People are most sensitive when it comes to tangible issues. For instance, most people are more acutely aware of their economic struggles rather than their political ideologies. This was the case in the past as well. Pro-North student activists took note of this fact. Starting with the tuition increase policy in the late 1980s, the student council used the protests as a way to incite further activism. Each college’s student council made this tuition struggle a platform from which to strategically lure students in to engage in other issues. Indeed, many peers who were transforming into student activists were those freshmen who had actively participated in the tuition struggle.

While participating in this tuition hike sit-in movement, students learned that in order to broadly win over the public they needed to combine ideological issues with economic issues. By engaging in such strategic action, they learned the best way to go about this. Though seemingly unrelated, this struggle was a strategic platform for the pro-North faction to appeal to a larger audience and gain influence with college students. Nowadays, with no relation to student activism, at universities across the country there are annual protests against tuition hikes which appear to be more out of custom than anything else.

Postscript: Many of the students driven at the time to protest by the suffering of their parents to make ends meet were actually not very studious to begin with. It was common among student activists to skip lectures and examinations. Ironically, they disregarded and wasted the valuable money that their parents had toiled so hard to earn.

Read the next column in this series:
5 – An Anti-American Warrior Can’t Become the Yankees’ Hired Gun

Read previous columns in this series:
1 – Learning about Gwangju at Freshmen Orientation
2 – Renouncing Capitalism for a Class-Based Worldview
3 – “Overthrow the U.S. Imperialists and Liberate our Colonized Nation!”

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