Korea opened a new chapter of reform and democratization half a century ago, on April 19, 1960. In the midst of reckless gunfire and gushing tear gas, university students bravely stood in the forefront of protests against the corrupt national government.
Among the fearless were students from Ewha, as they began a tradition that gradually led Ewha to play a central role in further protests for democracy, especially among female students.
These protests, now called the 4.19 revolution, eventually overthrew Lee Seung-man, the president of Korea, and indicted him for conducting rigged elections and corruption.
Beginnings On the 4.19 protest day, more than ten thousand people, mostly made up of university and high school students, gathered in front of the Gwanghwamun district of downtown Seoul to confront fully armed police. When the police guns fired, the students were the first to be struck, with 22 university students ending up dead, sending shock waves throughout the country.
But in the early 1960s, students who made up the core of the movement were mostly male and only a few students from Ewha individually participated in this dangerous revolution.
According to the Ewha Archives, the nature of Ewha as a Christian school did not allow involvement in violent mass student movements. Also, female students were discouraged since the site of the demonstration was considered too dangerous.
“Instead, the girls would stand behind the demonstrations and take part by taking care of the injured protesters,” said Professor Ham Dong-ju (History), the director of the Ewha Archives.
Greater involvement It wasn’t until 1965 when Ewha students started to actively participate in student demonstrations. Amid anti-Japanese sentiments that reached its peak in February 22, 1965 when the Treaty on Basic Relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan was signed, university students initiated the 6.3 movement, objecting to the government’s confidential decision to establish the agreement they saw was unfair.
Ewha could no longer ignore the social atmosphere and simply resort to peaceful means of demonstration.
As part of the movement, Ewha students took part in hunger strikes that lasted up to 108 hours, according to the book “Ewha Old and New ? 110 Years of History.” Another book titled “The History of the 6.3 Student Movements” also notes that in June, 1965, every Ewha student participated in a large scale rally against the government.
The 6.3 movement gradually developed into an anti-military government protest, and the government began using more violent means to suppress the students. For the first time since its foundation, Ewha was attacked by tear bombs by the police. Students were injured and the entire student council was arrested. This ignited a new climate at the demonstration sites: female students now stood side by side with male classmates. Ewha was at the spearhead of the transition.
Student protests demanding democracy and reform continued throughout the 1970s and 80s, and on November 15, 1971, President Park Jung-hee invoked the garrison act which demanded the shutdown of universities for an indefinite period.
During this time, Ewha students pinned black or white ribbons to their jackets in protest and tried to avoid the police who snatched the ribbons from their clothes near the school entrance. Those who lost their ribbons went back to the school office where new ones were provided.
According to the Ewha Archives, in response to the government act, 4,000 Ewha students and Ewha’s President Kim Ok-kil gathered up in front of the Welch-Ryang Auditorium. Together, they marched 150 meters out of the front gate where policemen directly confronted them. Along with several other professors, Kim put herself forward to protect the students from the police. The students were safe from the attack of policemen under her guard.
“In the 1980s, student movements unfolded with the wholehearted support from university students,” said Ham who studied at Ewha until graduating in 1986. “Many students were even killed and severely tortured. So the atmosphere was in fact really frightening,” said Ham.
Change in the movement The demonstration heat against the government did not cool down until the fall of the military regime in 1993, and the student movement changed its aim to protest against high tuition fees at the universities.
In 1991, with democratization on the way, the student council of Ewha started a tuition struggle which caused a tempory delay in the enrollment of students, and this struggle has continued in various forms since.
“The goal of democratization was, in a sense, achieved in the 1990s,” said Ham. “Society is now becoming increasingly diversified and students’ demands also became quite localized, at the same time.”
Some demonstrations over political issues have also persisted. On May 31, 2008, Ewha students confronted a number of riot policemen inside the campus at a foundation day ceremony. The cause of the collision included both protest against the KORUS FTA and tension caused by continued disagreements between the student council and the Ewha administration.
“Students were pushed and, as they tumbled at the stairs, many of them were injured,” said Kang Jung-ju (’09 Korean Language and Literature), who led the 40th student council in that year.
“Students these days develop their own careers and find their own ways to contribute to the society,” Ham said. “Such individual acts can be considered as another type of student movements which are as meaningful and important as the student movements of the past.”
“Calling a certain student act a ‘student movement’ can even be a stereotype,” said Kang.