As a 22-year-old university student in her fourth year of a nutrition course, Kim Sung-eun had never been much interested in politics. But recently, with a political crisis convulsing her country, she was compelled to take to the streets. “Of course I read the news, and I see that our country has issues with corruption,” she said. “But this time, I saw someone in my own age group benefitting, just because she is from a rich family.”
From October through December last year, Kim was among the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans who participated in a protest movement that culminated in the achievement of its primary goal: the ousting of the country’s president, Park Geun-hye.
Park faces allegations that she conspired with her confidante Choi Soon-sil to pressure corporations to donate billions of South Korean won to foundations that the latter controlled. On 9 December, the country’s legislature voted 234 to 56 in favour of Park’s impeachment. Despite the vote, Park is still technically president, though she has been suspended from any role in governance. The motion for Park’s impeachment must be approved by the Constitutional Court, which is in the midst of hearings.
In South Korea, collusion among the upper ranks of government and business is common. But there was one aspect of this case that caught the attention of Kim and many other young people: allegations of corruption in the intensely competitive world of education—chiefly that Park used her connections to get Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, admission to Seoul’s prestigious Ewha Womans University. This part of the scandal brought to the surface a festering debate about how opportunities are meted out in South Korea, specifically about how the wealthy and well-connected protect their own privilege and, in doing so, hold others back.
In November 2016, the ministry of education released the findings of an audit, which posited that Chung’s admission to Ewha Womans University violated the school’s standards, that she was admitted ahead of two students with stronger grades, and that she received credit for her first year of study despite attending none of her classes. Another investigation by the ministry showed that while in high school, Chung rarely attended her classes but passed all of them and was never punished. After news broke about Chung’s unfair admission, the president of Ewha resigned and the ministry cancelled her high school graduation.
Starting from early elementary school, most young South Koreans spend long hours preparing for the national university-entrance exam at tuition academies, hoping to earn a spot at a top school such as Ewha. In contrast, Chung, a competitive equestrian who has competed for South Korea’s national team, spent much of her school years learning horseback riding in Germany. Chung is currently in a detention centre in Denmark, where she was arrested for overstaying a visa, and faces extradition to South Korea to face questioning over the scandal. Danish police told Reuters that she claimed to have been doing equestrian work in the country.
The popular dislike of Chung spiked in November, when a newspaper unearthed a Facebook post she put up in 2014 in unapologetic defence of her privilege. “Money is a kind of ability,” she wrote, in coarse Korean. “If you’re poor, it’s your parents’ fault.”
Throughout the scandal, young people, online and at massive public protests, have complained that the incessant social pressure to study is a ruse that props up an unfair system. Kim told me that she and her peers had begun to question what parents and teachers tell them most often: that hard work is the way to upward mobility, and the principle of fair reward for effort undergirds South Korean society. “We are always told to study hard if we want to be successful, but here was a case of someone who did not bother to study but got huge riches and privileges,” Kim told me when I met her in a coffee shop near the campus of Seoul’s Sookmyung Women’s University, which she attends.
Since January 2016, Kim has been the president of the student council at Sookmyung. Before the scandal, she said, the student council had been mostly apolitical. Instead of activism, she said it focussed mostly on projects to improve student life, such as providing food during exams, and coordinating peer-counseling services to help people cope with stress. But as the news of Chung’s role in the scandal trickled out, Kim was inundated with calls and text messages from classmates saying that Sookmyung had to take a stand against growing injustice in South Korean society. In response, Kim and her council colleagues organised a contingent of students from the university to walk about an hour north every Saturday to downtown Seoul, where they would march alongside thousands of others, calling on Park to resign, and for a thorough investigation into her ties with Choi. Sookmyung was also one of several universities whose students held a boycott of classes on 25 November to protest. The council helped coordinate the boycott, even meeting with professors to inform them that many students would not attend class on the day.
“Korean youth have opened their eyes to the problems of corruption, social injustice and inequality,” Shin Kwang-yeong, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, told me over the phone. “Korean students believe that not everyone has a fair opportunity, and family background decides career success, instead of one’s ability.”
Kim told me that the political scandal changed her life. She had been living with her parents until October, when her long hours at the student council office drove her to rent a shared room near campus with a few of her colleagues. Kim came to our evening interview clad in a black parka bearing the Sookmyung Student Council’s logo, and as she sipped rooibos tea she intermittently took phone calls from classmates asking her about the council’s next moves.
Though Kim said she plans to remain informed and active as a citizen after she graduates from university this summer, she was not yet sure what kind of career path she would embark on. She and other graduates will be entering one of the least promising job markets in recent South Korean history. Government data puts youth unemployment at 8.2 percent—the highest since 2003, and much higher than the overall national unemployment rate of 3.4 percent.
In South Korea, starting one’s career and getting married are seen as essential steps toward adulthood. Many students fear getting stuck in a kind of extended adolescence—that if they are unable to find a decent job, they will end up stuck living with their parents. At one rally in November, students carried placards that implored South Korea’s leaders to “Allow us a clear path to start our lives”—an allusion to a wish for more government efforts towards job creation.
“Students are still going to study hard,” said Kim Ye-hyun, a 24-year-old who finished university last summer, and is now applying to graduate programmes in journalism in the United States, in addition to participating in some of the protests. “Though the system is not totally fair, studying and getting into a good university is still a way to avoid the worst-case scenario. No one wants to get stuck in a really bad job.”
The demonstrations that Kim and her classmates joined will go down as part of the biggest social movement in South Korea since 1987, when the country was gripped by large, often violent, protests against the military regime of President Chun Doo-hwan.
On the unseasonably warm afternoon of 9 December, crowds thick with students, farmers and trade unionists gathered in front of the National Assembly, inside which the legislature was voting on whether to impeach Park. Karaoke music blared from loudspeakers, and dozens of farmers picnicked in the middle of the road. Cho Sung-bin, a 16-year-old high-school student, stood chanting with other students in favour of the impeachment. “I am worried about my future and worried about what kind of career prospects I will have,” Cho told me.
After the impeachment was announced over loudspeakers just after 4 pm, Cho and his classmates cried out in joy, jumping and embracing. The fervour passed after a few minutes, and I asked Cho what he and his fellows would do to celebrate further. They would all be heading home soon, he said. They had homework to do.
Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul. He tweets as @steven_borowiec.