This summer, I returned home to Seoul, South Korea, to take a breather from an exhausting freshman year at Princeton and to engage in an internship opportunity at Yonsei University, one of the most prestigious universities in South Korea. During my time there, I learned much about the school’s affiliation with the 1987 June Struggle in South Korea against the Jeon-Doo-Hwan military dictatorship. During this turbulent time in South Korean history, students at Yonsei University marched into the streets of Seoul alongside tens of thousands of ordinary citizens in order to protest the military regime’s attempt to stifle a direct election of the nation’s president and brutal suppression of democratization protesters. During this struggle, Lee Han Yeol, a student of Yonsei University, was shot in the head with a gas pellet while demonstrating in front of the gates of the college. Due to his injury, Han Yeol fell into a coma that lasted for nearly a month, before he ultimatelypassed away. Before he breathed his last however, his and countless others’ sacrifices were rewarded as the military regime capitulated to the public’s pressure for democratization.
In memory of the 30th anniversary of Han Yeol’s sacrifice, Yonsei dedicated a portion of their buildings to commemorate not only Han Yeol, but also all those who participated in the June Struggle. In this commemoration, the university displayed artifacts from the June Struggle, from Han Yeol’s schoolbag to the shields of the riot police. It was this display into which I wandered on a hot afternoon in late July.
As I looked upon Han Yeol’s small leather school bag, I did not feel pride at Han Yeol’s bravery nor anger at the atrocities of the past. Instead as I gazed upon that bag, a symbol of one of the darkest moments in Korean history, I realized how normal that bag was. It, like my own, was worn in places where it was dropped on the floor during classes, and etched with ink marks from wayward pens. And much like our bags, Han Yeol and I probably were not so different. He probably had dreams of his own, felt angry when things did not go his way, and worried about his future. Yet I sit here writing about Han Yeol as a hero because he displayed ordinary courage in an extraordinary situation. I write about Han Yeol not because he became a symbol for the citizens to rally behind in the June protests, but because he, as an individual and expecting nothing but arrest and torture, joined his classmates and his people for the faintest dream of democratizing Korea. I write about my classmate because he provides a model of individual bravery and resistance that all of us at Princeton can follow.
I do not believe that Han Yeol was not destined for greatness from his birth. I do not believe that he joined the front ranks of that column of protesters knowing that he would become a martyr. Up to the moment he was shot with the gas pellet, he, like any other student within the group of protesters, probably worried about how many classes he was missing, or how worried his parents would be because of his participation. However, Han Yeol metamorphosed into a hero because he stepped forth upon that street filled with tear gas and armored police officers knowing that he could be arrested and hurt. He knew that the consequences of his actions could not only cost him his freedom, but his family’s fortunes as well. Still, he overcame his fears because he felt that he had a duty to his fellow countrymen and nation. Not as an intellectual, not as an elite, but as a Korean, he could not and did not stand for injustice and suppression of his people’s rights. And it was this simple act of moral fortitude that changed the course of Korean history.
This fortitude, however, was incredibly difficult to attain and still remains so. Even now in Princeton, where threats of police brutality and unjust arrests are low, many students hesitate to criticize what they believe the government is doing wrong. I am no exception. There are moments in which I am afraid that what I say now can disadvantage me in the future. Just last winter, as some Korean-American students protested the Choi Soon Shil scandal in front of Nassau Hall, I hid in my dorm room. Although I was enraged by the situation and wrote about the topic in The Daily Princetonian, I was afraid that my physical presence in the protest could turn my potential future employers into enemies and anger those that held different opinions. I thought of my own father, who by partaking in student protests throughout the 1980s was arrested over four times in his college years. Instead, I took a safer route, hiding behind the ‘Prince’ as a shield and allowing my busy class schedule to become an excuse rather than risking any negative repercussions.
It is time for me and other students like me to change. We cannot allow our fears of our future or of our academic responsibilities to become mere excuses to explain our lack of political and social awareness. We need to become more like Han Yeol — a student who knew what was wrong and had the fortitude to protest these injustices. Although perceptions of these injustices can differ according to our interests and our knowledge in the field, we must do what we can to correct these inequities wherever they may be.
There will always be those who try to take advantage of people’s apathy to commit acts of injustice or hatred. From abroad to home, from the past to the present, some men and women will rely on the majority’s want for immediate stability and preoccupation with their more pressing duties to bully and hurt others for their gain. To protect ourselves and our communities from these ever-growing threats, we need to remain aware and have faith that our actions, though they may be meaningless separately, can cause momentous change.
Daehee Lee is a sophomore from Palisades Park, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.