Korean Women and the ‘Cat’s Labour Union’


In this week’s blog, ULSB PhD student Chanhyo Jeong (cj156@le.ac.uk) writes about the women’s protests in South Korea, an inspiring story of how the relentless power of people can sometimes overturn the most powerful regimes.


South Korean democracy is only 30 years old. After the civil uprising in 1987, military dictatorship was ended. However, the Koreans recently witnessed how their young democracy is now capable of protecting itself lawfully and peacefully. On Friday 10th March, the South Korean constitutional court impeached the democratically elected, first female President Park Geun-Hye. She was removed from her seat immediately.


Behind this remarkable story, which is predicted to be made into various movies and K-dramas, the main characters are mostly women. The decision to impeach the female president started at no other than the Ewha Womans University. As the nation’s top women only university, Ewha’s feminist stance and elite status have been major targets of misogynists and internet trolls. Then the unthinkable happened.  In 2016 the university decided to open a new college that specialized in “beauty and wellness” which aims to cater to the demands of the industry. Students quickly organized a protest to claim “a university should not be a business”.


The women chose a unique tactic during their 86 days sit-in protest which they called “snail democracy” – slow, peaceful, voluntary, and leaderless. To concentrate on the main issues and protect anonymity, protestors hid their faces with baseball caps and masks. They started study groups sitting on the lawn. Their meetings were open to everyone, had no time limit and minutes were shared immediately. Other students brought supplies, including beauty products, hairdryers and flowers to the bathrooms. The spectacular pictures and videos went viral. People saw how the students were switching on their mobile phone lights in the night, choosing “Into the new World” by the popular female K-pop group Girl’s Generation, a catchy and saccharin sweet tune, for their protest song.


In September, the president resigned and the students stopped the university’s plan for a new college.


During the students’ open discussion, some students questioned the university’s unusual treatment of one mystery student, who did not show up in classes yet was known to receive a grade. Little did these students know, their complaint would result in the president’s impeachment in less than a year. The mystery student turned out to be a daughter of President Park’s old friend, Choi Soon-sil, who was involved in money laundering of the president’s hidden wealth. Also, some of Ewha professors were found to have permitted Choi’s daughter admission to gain more government funding. Then the media reported that the biggest South Korean company, Samsung, had bribed Park through Choi and presented expensive horses to Choi’s daughter. Samsung needed the support of the President regarding the succession of its 3rd generation heir, Jae Yong Lee. In October 2016, the official Investigations began. About 50 thousand people started the first candlelight vigil, and 2.3 Million people showed up at its sixth.


Inspired by the success of the students, the participants created joke organisations because organised protests get accused of being funded by North Korea. The use of satire and humour invited more bystanders into the movement. People gathered under various meaningless flags, such as “Democratic Cats Labour Union”, “Tigerbeetle Research Society” and “Zebra Research Society” and flags with the funniest names swept the internet.


President Park was silent. She refused to resign, and did not show up for her trial at the Constitutional Court. Her presidential style had been criticized for a long time because she was known to avoid media interviews without scripts, face to face reporting and only communicated via phones and email documents.


Park is a daughter of Chung-Hee Park, a former president and an assassinated dictator. During the 18 years of his dictatorship, Park’s father managed to rapidly develop the South Korean economy at the expense of democracy. Park also worked as an acting First Lady until her father’s death, since her mother was killed by a North Korean assassin in 1974. Park’s re-emergence to politics came after the Asian Economic Crisis in 1997. “Business friendly” politicians were keen on using Park’s influence on voters who still have nostalgic feelings about the rapid economic development in the 70s.


Not only was she a daughter of the past president, she kept her hair looking like her mother’s. Park became famous for it and it requires an experienced hairdresser. With 25 hairpins needed, her special updo is a laborious process.


South Korean women found their latest hair inspiration from another unexpected source. On the day the president was unseated, a picture of Jeong-Mi Lee, the head of the South Korean constitutional court went viral. Lee is the only female and the youngest of the nine member court. On her way to deliver the final verdict of the President’s impeachment trial, she was photographed by the press with two pink hair rollers still attached on her obviously self-cared hair. Instead of being mocked, Lee was praised and inspired lots of women wearing two pink hair rollers in the streets of Seoul on that day. South Korean women called her hair a symbol of a real working woman.


Remarkably, 20 weekly candlelight protests gathered total 15 million participants until President’s Park’s impeachment and ended non-violently, with not even a single case of a crash between protestors and police. High school girls voluntarily organized the street cleaning squads and the protest site was spotlessly clean every time. Korean tiger moms brought their children to the protest, because “Our children need to learn from living history”.


Like South Korea’s young democracy, feminism in my country is still evolving and faced with lots of challenges. However this time, the nation witnessed how Korean females successfully take civil disobedience initiatives to defend the true value of their education and democracy. Their courage and clever strategies, doubtlessly made the success of civil disobedience possible without any attempts of violence. In the era of Brexit and Trump, I am grateful to have celebrated the success of different kind of power, soft and relentless.


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Martin Parker

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Professor of Culture and Organisation.

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