- Remembering Yonsei in 1987 for a promising 2018, and more days to come
“DEFINITE YONSEI—proud overdose, I felt like I was back to my freshman year.” This is a comment made by Lee Jae-hyun (Jr., UIC, Dept. of Quantitative Risk Management) after watching the movie 1987: When the Day Comes. Unexplainable pride emerges while watching the smog-filled Yonsei campus on screen, the scenes depicting the resistant crowd, and, of course, Lee Han-yeol: one of the most notable martyrs of democracy in Korea. However, with pride comes shock. We are not familiar with Yonsei then, in 1987, because we have only heard and never seen. We take the polished, dust-free Baekyang-ro for granted; it is no surprise that the battlefield-like spectacle at the main gate of Yonsei University gives a tremor. “The day” that Lee Han-yeol and other student activists of 1987 had urged for is in our hands, thirty-one years after that moment. This is a report from Yonsei now, in 2018: a commemoration to those who have sacrificed their lives for a future with freedom and democracy.
Democratization movement and Yonsei: the unforgettable history
For all members of the Korean society, the year 1987 is remembered as a year of chaos. As The Yonsei Annals also reported in its May issue of 1987, it was a year when “undemocratic actions continue[d] one after another.” Total of nine columns with the keywords of “democratization,” “freedom,” and “constitutional reform” were published in May and June issues of the Annals in 1987. Evidently, Yonseians were at the frontier of changing the history.
The June Democracy Movement, a nationwide democracy demonstration that swept the nation from June 10 to June 29, 1987, was catalyzed by the death of the student activist Park Jong-chul, a former student of Seoul National University, on Jan. 14, 1987. Since the implementation of the Yusin Constitution* in 1972 by the former president Park Jung-hee, presidents were indirectly elected in South Korea. President Chun Doo-hwan, who was in office from Sept. 1, 1980 to Feb. 25, 1988, was not an exception. The Chun government also enjoyed the illegitimacy of the Yusin Constitution and violated the freedom of the citizens with the forces of military dictatorship. Words and actions against his reign were silenced, or, in many cases, tortured. Under his control, countless deaths by torture were kept undercover until 1987, when the death of Park Jong-chul rose to surface with two Korean press, Joongang Daily and Dong-A Ilbo.
The Chun government oppressed the media to report Park’s death as a mere accident. However, on Jan. 15, 1987 Joongang Daily stood against the oppressive control of the media by disclosing that “the police reported the reason for Park Jong-chul’s death as a death from shock. However, the prosecution is questioning the possibility of physical abuse.” One day after, Dong-A Ilbo reported, “Park was half-undressed when Doctor Oh arrived at the investigation room, and the floor was wet with water,” further substantiating the revelation of the truth behind Park’s death.
Through media, the truth of Park’s death was uncovered: he died of suffocation from waterboarding, not of a heart attack. On May 18, the news gained momentum as the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice publicly announced that it confirmed Park’s death from torture as an official fact. As a result, resistance amassed, with individuals voicing their support to the establishment of the National Movement Headquarters for the Acquisition of a Democratic Constitution. On June 10, 1987, 24,000 citizens assembled in 22 cities to wail out “Amend the Constitution! Overthrow the authoritarian regime!” The nationwide cry for freedom continued for 19 days without a single minute of pause, eliciting a sit-down strike at the Myeong-dong Cathedral, a series of assemblies against tear-gas**, and the Great National March of Peace on the final day of the demonstrations.
Finally, on June 29, the Chun government accepted the public’s demand. Chun renounced the demolition of the Yusin Constitution and accepted the public’s request for a direct presidential election: a resounding victory of freedom earned by the deaths of 4 million innocent heroes who fought for their future, and our today.
Lee Han-yeol: a Yonseian and a national symbol of democratization
Of the “innocent heroes” was Lee Han-yeol, a student activist from Yonsei University. He is a leading symbolic figure in the modern history of Korea, one who had faced an unfortunate death from a critical injury that was received during a demonstration. Just a day before the National Demonstration, Yonseians underwent their own protest on campus against the autocratic rule of Chun. Lee, while participating at the forefront of the protest, was hit by a tear-gas fired by a combat police dispatched by the government. The tear-gas tin hit the back of his head and penetrated his skull. Following the injury, Lee was immediately moved to the Severance Hospital, where he received treatment until he eventually faced his death in July 5, 1987, 27 days after the incident. He was only 21 years old at the time of his death. The news of the death of an innocent, 21 year-old university student swiftly spread throughout the crowd: people began to cry out “Save Han-yeol!” with grief.
The anger towards Lee’s sacrifice hurled the nation because he was too young and too innocent. The empathy among the public was especially immense because they believed that his death could have happened to any one of them, or more so because they believed that he died for every one of them. Lee’s funeral was held as a five-day funeral and was named a democratic national funeral. “On the morning of July 9, crowds of mourners filled up Paik Yang-Ro to attend the funeral which was to take place in front of the Underwood Hall,” reported the Annals on September 1987.
According to Sports Seoul, an associate of the film 1987 revealed in an interview that “the director of the movie had a special attachment to the character of Lee Han-yeol.” “He did not even want to release the casting decision of Lee’s character, as he wanted to maximize the effect of his appearance on screen,” he added. As evident from the gravity of Lee’s character in the movie, he is ingrained as a symbol of the democratization movement today, representing the year of 1987. Lee ignited the fierce flame that burned out the military dictatorship and lit the torch of hope and freedom.
Yonsei then, in 1987
Lee, however, was not alone among the tear-gas smoke, the cries, and the grief in 1987. Although he could not live on to share his heroic stories with the world, countless other Yonseians who witnessed the fervor of 1987 live onto today to narrate their firsthand experience. Maeng Young-Jae (Class of 1986, Dept. of Business & Econ) recalled in the promotion video of the movie 1987, “back then, we had life-and-death intentions.” 1987 was “the year I used time most efficiently, and the year I was the bravest,” added Kim Jung-hee (Class of 1986, Dept. of Sociology). Maeng and Kim both explained how they “feel sorry and responsible for those who left us early.” However, it is thanks to people like Maeng and Kim—who have fought and survived the hardship—that we are able to recall June 1987 over thirty years after its occurrence. It is thanks to their recollections that we are able to keep the legacy of Lee and other “innocent heroes,” tear up at their sacrifice, and respect their bravery. After all, it is these memories that keep the present and future attentive of the past.
To commemorate the lost ones, some of the protesters from 1987 gathered in 2015 and established the Lee Han-yeol choir. They are the voices who sing “When the Day Comes,” a song that is played at the ending credit of the movie 1987. “‘When the Day Comes’ was a closing song for every demonstration,” recollected Maeng. “We share a camaraderie singing this song together. It’s a song that cannot be sung without any tingles in the heart,” he added. He also remarked: “[Thinking of] the dreams we had in our minds singing this song and the questions we had on whether ‘the Day’ will come or not, I feel privileged to be singing this song in a much more advanced society.” With special thanks to the Yonseians of 1987, “When the Day Comes” is no longer a “dream” but a reality.
Yonsei now, in 2018
This was the story of Yonsei then, in 1987. Bloody, yet fierce. What does Yonsei look like now, in 2018? Without doubt, the campus is no longer tear-gas filled, the Baekyang-ro that Yonseians of the past have marched through on Lee’s funeral day has been renewed, and the privilege of democracy prevails throughout the campus.
In the movie 1987, Man Hwa Sa Rang appears as the dong-a-ri, or student club, that Lee is involved in. Man Hwa Sa Rang is described as a club in which student activists assemble under the façade of an innocent, cartoon-loving student gathering. In fact, this club is not fiction. Founded on April 1987, Man Hwa Sa Rang remains within Yonsei to this day, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. To explore the contrast of Yonsei then with Yonsei now, The Yonsei Annals conducted an interview with Han Dong-gun (Jr., Dept. of Biotech), the current president of Man Hwa Sa Rang.
First and foremost, the focus of the dong-a-ri appeared to have changed wholly from the politically-oriented one that we have seen in the movie. When asked about the change, Han answered: “Nothing much of the club from 1987 remains until today.” It appears that a new atmosphere has emerged, transforming Man Hwa Sa Rang from a unified, collective body to a versatile, diverse one over time.
“Now we cover various activities with different focuses [rather than concentrating on cartoons only]. The members tend to concentrate on their own interests aligned with their departments,” he added. “The learning department focuses on cartoon drawing, the education department takes charge of seminar meetings based on various sub-cultures, and the writing department practices fictional writing skills. Then, we publish the collections of our work annually,” Han further explained. “We also participate in in-school cartoon and creation exhibitions, face paint at school festivals, and more,” Han added, emphasizing his response on the current purpose and multiplicity of Man Hwa Sa Rang.
Today’s Man Hwa Sa Rang is diverse with the three varying departments—each with their own activities and responsibilities. In the club’s transformation is embedded acceptance and respect for individualism, both of which can be seen as the products of liberalism and the democratic advancement. As shown, 31 years of time has granted freedom and democracy to Man Hwa Sa Rang, transforming it from a student activist organization in 1987 to a club of art and expression in 2018. “With the liberal atmosphere of peer-respect, we share and create, leading the democratic culture in universities 30 years after its foundation,” Han emphasized with pride. It is, of course, a change within a small group of people. However, it can also be seen as a representation of how far South Korea has come since 1987. This change in Man Hwa Sa Rang undoubtedly symbolizes the atmospheric transformation of Yonsei, and, ultimately, of the South Korean society.
The change is hopeful, yet we must not forget the past. Though shameful to admit, it appears that quite a large number of Yonseians today did not consider the Memorial Day of Lee as a major event before the release of the movie 1987. Last year, even though it was the 30th anniversary of Lee’s death, only a small number of students participated in the commemoration ceremony. The majority walked past the memorial monument without a second glance.
When asked whether he knew the relationship between Lee and his club, Han answered: “To be honest, I did not know about Lee’s relation to Man Hwa Sa Rang straight after I joined the club.” This might be understandable given the passage of time. Living in the fast-moving 21st Century, it is inevitable for Yonseians of 2018 to focus on tomorrow rather than yesterday. Nevertheless, some “yesterdays” should not be buried away, and South Korea in 1987 is a leading example. The significance of the year has finally risen to the surface, 31 years after the occurrence, thanks to the movie: dozens of articles on 1987 are flushing through the media day by day, posts about the June Democracy Movement are receiving hundreds of likes on social networks, and, most importantly, Yonsei University is once again fervently remembering Lee. The release of the movie is even seen to have accelerated the foundation of the “Lee Han-yeol Korea Democracy Foundation,” an official school organization to commemorate Lee, which was already in plan for years.
We may have been indifferent to the past for a long time, but this does not mean that Yonsei had no remnants of the events in 1987 before the release of the movie. Man Hwa Sa Rang, for instance, keeps “freedom, criticism, and creation” as their official slogan, continuing the legacy that began with its establishment in 1987. “Much has changed, but we are still proud of Man Hwa Sa Rang of 1987 and Lee.” As Han said, pride continues to remain.
Democracy is something that we have held onto over time, and it shall remain as the trophy won by Yonseians in 1987. Breathing the air of freedom inherited from 1987, Yonseians today treasure the belief for democracy deep in their minds. “I often hear that the spirit of the democratization movement has died down,” Han commented at the end of the interview. “However, watching members of our club participating in the Student Club Union and longing for a better club environment and witnessing their concerns for a better society, I believe that Yonseians of 2018 also have the knowledge and ability to react to big and small wrongs of their surroundings. If we do not lose this seed, I believe that we can also encourage ourselves to run out there and blossom the flower of resistance when the society needs us,” he concluded.
Han’s belief is, in fact, not a mere fantasy. In 2016, hundreds of Yonseians took to the Plaza of Gwang-hwa-mun one by one after the Yonsei flag, with brightly illuminating candles in hand. Living in the “dream” era that Yonseians of 1987 had desperately desired, we have made our own “dream” come true: the move for democracy has never stopped and will never stop.
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2018 had a meaningful start, remembering what needs to be remembered. The privilege of democracy that we often take for granted is a result of those who rose up with anger and tears and sacrificed their youth to fight against the oppressive system. Lee Han-yeol may be a symbol, but he is more than that: he is a reminder of our painful history and an inspiration. For hundreds of rebellious youth that did not know fear, remember 1987, and live on 2018.
*Yusin Constitution: Authoritarian system adopted in October 1972 by former president of Korea, Park Chung-hee.**Assembly against tear-gas: A protest against the use of tear-gas in public demonstrations by the government’s combat police.
Song Min-sun firstname.lastname@example.org
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