How would you describe the end of 2013? What used to be a peaceful and heartwarming time of the year turned to be the loudest: state interference in the presidential election, controversy regarding the electricity transmission tower in Miryang-si, and a sudden announcement of rail privatisation followed by a massive layoff of union workers in a strike were enough to provoke the normally quiet public. This time, things were different from before. We saw a crowd of active citizens who were not afraid to speak up and stand against the wrongs. Just like the 1980s, the daejaboe (handwritten poster) movement once again swept across Korea.
▲ The very first daejaboe posted by Ju Hyun-woo
The daejaboe movement dates back to the 1980s when President Chun Doo-hwan was in the office. In a society where having a say in political issues was considered a taboo and serious crime, university students of the time had no choice but to express their thoughts on papers on campus boards. In order to criticise the amoral actions of the government, students had to turn to handwritten posters which were their only way of making a voice. Though daejaboe can be seen as a mere writing on walls, it was more than long rant about politics. It is what led to the enlightenment and bonding of the youth who were at the forefront of the democratisation movement. However important it was to the public then, this means of expression disappeared altogether with the student movement. So when it was pinned up on the campus walls again for the first time in decades, the older generations felt nostalgic for the time they stood against what they thought was unfair and unjust, and the younger generation was able to experience a different yet still effective communication channel.
In 2013, Korea was once again overwhelmed with the daejaboe boom. Last October, Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) forcibly pushed through the construction of an extra-high voltage transmission tower against the wills of enraged residents of Miryang-si, Gyeongsangnam-do. Lee Chi-woo, a senior resident in Miryang-si burned himself to death after KEPCO officials decided to force the construction through, and many more were and still are frustrated with the stubborn authorities.
Following this event was a rail strike of about 15,000 unionists of Korea Railroad Corp. (Korail) in December. About 45 percent of the entire workforce went on a strike to protest against the management on privatising the rail service – a plan to take the most lucrative share of its business. Trainee students from rail engineer schools were placed to fill in for them, and this unfortunately resulted in a tragic death of a 78-year-old woman. What surprised people more was the following dismissal of 4,213 unionists and a mass lawsuit against hundreds of those that took on the leading role.
Despite these serious problems, the press is not addressing the issue properly. According to an analysis by Citizen’s Coalition for Democratic Media (CCDM), the total number of interviews relevant to this issue broadcasted by the nation’s three main broadcasting companies from Dec. 8 to 10 last year was 138. However, among 138 interviews, only 30 contained standpoints of labour unions opposing the privatization of public enterprise, and 104 interviews were in favour of the government and Korail. This is deceiving the public by attenuating the intention of a rail strike while highlighting only the inconveniences and damages caused by a rail strike.
So, as usual, no one stepped forward to address these issues, and uncomfortable silence continued until Ju Hyun-woo, a business major at Korea University, broke the silence and put up two large sheets of paper titled, “Are you doing all right?” on the campus bulletin board that started it all. His voice was heard by fellow students overnight, and people started to notice this young man’s lament to injustice and corruption that exist in the Korean society. Since then, many have taped up daejaboe and staged a number of demonstrations to ask one another, “Are you doing all right?”
How much did daejaboe contribute to addressing each voice?
Ju’s attempts with daejaboe brought people’s attention to the problems overlooked by the Korean government and press. Here, discussing in depth how much daejaboe contributed to addressing each individual’s voice seems necessary. Daejaboe introduces a new model of outreach and communication with multiple advantages over the current media. What broadcasts and newspapers avoided to publicise can be revealed to the public by daejaboe. Even though it would neither be a complete substitute for the existing media nor be able to compete with them on an equal footing, it carries a lot of weight in that it reflects the voice and concerns of the minority.
First, daejaboe allows everyone to participate, guaranteed it will be taken seriously. The poster’s open nature lets people to freely express their opinions. Because the writer does not have to be an authorised reporter or a professional to put up a daejaboe, people from all walks of life can participate. For instance, the very first daejaboe was taped up by a university student. A few weeks later, a union worker in a strike picked up his pen to claim a fair treatment from his employers. High school students posted their own daejaboe even at the risk of being suspended from school. Even those involved in prostitution stepped out of their shades to speak up for themselves, and their attempts were not disregarded or derided as shallow rants one sees online. Summing up, it is open to any minorities that are willing to let out their voice.
Moreover, it can be posted anywhere, anytime, and in any form. When it comes to the existing media, constraints on the contents, format, and publication do exist, whereas when writing daejaboe, nothing stands in the way of the writers. Also, what would have remained trivial online becomes more noteworthy when it is taken to an offline space. When such criticism of the society is online, it seems like it exists only in the virtual world. On the other hand, old school writing, handwritten and signed, makes the problems simply “real.” By putting up such posters in busy public squares, they become a new form of media of which any passerby can easily get a glimpse. That is, even those who do not have access to the social media can hear people’s voices uncensored.
Another positive point that could be made is that daejaboe is captivating to the audience. The fact that it is handwritten holds much more emotion and gravity in its words than any other forms of media. Writers could have easily typed up and posted a piece of writing online; however, they decided to put in their precious time and effort to handwrite a poster and tape it up themselves. Not only did they handwrite the whole thing, but also decided to go by their real names. This increases the credibility of the posters and comes across as very appealing and persuasive to the readers.
In addition, when daejaboe is combined with social media, a synergy effect is created. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Kakao Story has taken daejaboe to a whole new level. With the help of Social Networking System (SNS), it could be seen by more people online in a much shorter time. People have gone from reading off of posters offline to taking those matters directly to discussions online. Not to mention reading the offline posters online through pictures. For instance, the Facebook page Ju created broadcasts news in regards to daejaboe every few hours and anyone subscribed or having friended a subscribed person is notified. It really becomes hard to miss out on a single piece of news. Not only that, anyone can write their ideas on the posts and easily find out what others think. It seems like daejaboe is a new measure of communication that can arouse the public.
Despite many advantages mentioned above, daejaboe has its limitations to be an effective means of expression for the minority. The daejaboe craze that started in mid-December appeared as if it would bring actual changes to the society. However, it is completely dissolved now. Daejaboe itself cannot be blamed for being a temporary outlet; rather, blame is on people that use this medium. Since this is a new phenomenon, it is hard to state a conclusive reason to explain the outcome. Nevertheless, the so-called “Korean temper” may have influenced the outcome of daejaboe. This term relates to the stereotypical characteristic of Koreans who heat up and cool off quickly.
A sudden drop of interest may be one of the deep-seated problems besetting Korea. The Korean temper could be witnessed again when Japanese Prime Minister Abe made improper remarks on Dokdo and the South Korean government. A conservative Japanese magazine reported that Abe called South Korea a foolish country that is not negotiable. Also, he continues to make claims on Dokdo, going further as to bringing the long-standing territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Korean people were fuming after his reckless actions, and in a matter of minutes, the Internet was flooded with angry comments. However, the controversy subsided after a week. The reason behind this may be that people are busy trying to put food on the table amidst the struggling economy; so they cannot stay focused on distant political matters for long. The issues brought up by daejaboe are not exceptions. Whatever the cause is, this practice is repeated and daejaboe seems like a victim of the Korean temper.
The UOS Times conducted a survey on university students to find out what they think about the role of daejaboe. 76 percent of students saw it as an effective communication channel that can draw participation. They also thought it could work as an index to show how much university students are interested in current issues of the nation. The results of this survey imply that daejaboe, as a communication tool, made it possible for hidden complaints about the society and eagerness to rise above the surface and this effect of public uprising will recur the next time daejaboe is written. On the other hand, 24 percent believes it is an insufficient means of expression because some are temporally caught up in the heat of the moment and emotionally driven. When asked about the prospects of this movement, as many as 78 percent of students responded that daejaboe will fizzle out, failing to make a change. And only 17 percent answered it will continue for a while.
A platform for the minorities to make their voices heard
We believe daejaboe did serve as a medium for the general public to voice its opinions. It stepped in to solve the shortcomings of the existing media. When tens of thousands of unionists gathered in front of the City Hall of Seoul to fight against the privatisation of railroads, all broadcasting media including the big three, did not say a word about this gathering which was so massive that it was impossible to be overlooked for weeks. Instead, it was replaced by trivial news that is by no means necessary. It is not certain if they chose not to cover this, thinking the public would not be interested, or if they were forced not to air such accusational events. However, the former seems highly unlikely, and in these circumstances, it can only be concluded that the press has intentionally refused to cover these matters.
To borrow Ju’s words from the interview with The UOS Times, “there were a lot of oppressed voices” but “the existing press and other organisations such as political parties or interest groups have done very little to help minorities speak up.” When the existing media, tangled up with people who have an interest in this issue failed to report on those matters, daejaboe became a helpful outlet for those wanting to speak up.
Furthermore, the mainstream media today are categorised based on their political orientation, and any political argument made is looked from a biased point of view and prejudged by their political colours. Therefore, mass media is very careful in the contents and its wording. However, daejaboe does not have limitations as to what should be written on it. This allows anyone, a conservative or a liberal, to have a candid conversation through papers.
The daejaboe heat will eventually cool down, and, as of now, it is not expected to change many things. However, daejaboe is more about changing oneself. Getting involved in societal issues, rather than being a mere spectator, is going to bring changes to each individual that makes up the society. It may not be enough to replace the existing social media; however, turning individuals into responsible citizens who can see what is not “all right” around them will gradually add up to changing the society as a whole.
Since exposing daejaboe to public is different from writing a personal diary to oneself, validity to some extent is required in it. That is, people should be careful when spreading information that is unconfirmed or deemed too personal. Establishing a legally-binding system to punish scaremongers may be a way to prevent people from becoming victims of irrational posters. Because it is easy to be incited by untrue yet emotional writing on daejaboes, readers should be able to make rational judgments instead of being a blind believer. However, if the posters are not used to stir the public for political purposes and are solely a pure expression of opinion, no measures should be taken to limit what is written on them. If these possible side effects are carefully thought through and mended, daejaboe will continue to develop an influence and speak for the minorities and the have-nots in our society.
As Ju told The UOS Times, the question, “Are you doing all right?”, itself makes the questioner and questionee think about what is not all right in their surroundings. Thus, every time people say or hear such greetings from others, they would be immediately reminded of the daejaboe craze, even if the movement is not around them any longer. It would not be too much to say that this phenomenon has already changed the meaning of the phrase “all right.”
Can you stand idle by because the problem is not yours? We want to ask the readers of The UOS Times “Are you doing all right?”
Interview with Ju Hyun-woo Korea Univ. 27
Do you think incompetence of the existing media to deliver the voices of the minority triggered the outbreak of daejaboe?
It would be too much to say that it is only unprofessional media we should blame for the outburst of daejaboe. Nevertheless, it is certain that the existing media and press did not do a proper job on addressing social issues.
On Dec. 14, 2013, I attended the gathering at City Hall. There, I remember someone telling me, “We turn on the TV to see reindeers giving birth and news on a healthy diet, but never do we see reports on important issues such as the voices of the minority and the reason behind the economic downturn.” I cannot agree more; this is absence of media.
Is daejaboe an example that clearly shows what the Korean temper is?
The expression, Korean temper is the general rhetoric of the politicians used to conceal their external pressure on the public. Who would continue to participate in politics at the risk of landing in trouble? However, these efforts and enthusiasm are going nowhere. If they are accumulated and developed over time, I am sure they will bring about change in the future.
University students seem highly interested in daejaboe and its outcomes. According to our survey, over 90 percent of students responded that they were well aware of daejaboe. However, the majority prospected that it will soon fizzle out to no avail. What is your opinion on that?
Yes, the daejaboe craze will disappear at some point and daejaboe is not expected to change anything for now. Frankly, I saw this coming the moment I thought about writing one. However, no evident change does not mean everyone’s sweat and passion turned out to be in vain. I believe daejaboe was very successful in that it changed each individual. Being concerned and getting involved in social issues are first steps to transforming the society. In this sense, daejaboe was never a golden ticket to changing the society as a whole; it was only a means to an end. Daejaboe did everything on its part and came to an end.