A Time for Protest

Protesters gather in front of the former Provincial Office in downtown Gwangju

Protesters gather in front of the former Provincial Office in downtown Gwangju

The world is watching South Korea. I am watching too.

Politics has saturated into my daily life in South Korea. It comes in snippets of news I hear from taxi radios and public televisions. It filters through whispers in the gyomushil 1 . I see it in the impertinent remarks made by students attempting to be funny. It is carried over the beat of samullori 2 down the street and the angry call to action from truck-mounted loudspeakers…

Since October, 2016, the country has been rocked by a political scandal over President Park Geun-hye’s connection to Choi Soon-sil, a woman without security clearance or any official position, who was found to be secretly giving counsel to the president and had access to presidential and government documents.

Already, it has come to light that Choi Soon-sil was found to have used her clout and influence to extort ₩77.4 billion (around $60 million) from Korean chaebols (large business conglomerates), embezzle money from two of her foundations, in addition to rigging the admissions process at Ewha Womans University so that her daughter would be accepted. There is a palpable sense of betrayal and rage against the government and President Park for colluding and being manipulated by Choi Soon-sil. The charges against Choi have only continued to grow as more information comes to light. [Read a full summary of the scandal]

Placards reading 당장 내려야 (Step down now!) and 박근혜 퇴진 (Park Geun-hye Resign!)

Placards reading 당장 내려야 (Step down now!) and 박근혜 퇴진 (Park Geun-hye Resign!)

Following this news, protests rapidly sprung up across the country, with the largest protests being organized in Seoul. With approval ratings for the president below 4%, massive demonstrations have continued to grow in size for the sixth straight week in a row. The most recent protests on Saturday, December 3rd proved to be the largest rally in South Korea’s history with organizers estimating over 2 million people on the streets in Seoul alone. Police put that figure around 350,000, a still remarkable number. President Park Geun-hye said on November 30th that she would allow the National Assembly to determine her fate and only hours ago, the vote was passed to proceed for an impeachment.

The entire country has waited for this moment and shown it through their resilience, activism, and dedication that has culminated in immense demonstrations. By and large, these protests have remained very peaceful, captivating the international community. However, South Korea has not been known for their peaceful protests. Police and demonstrators have clashed in the past, with police turning powerful water cannons and pepper spray on demonstrators. In April of 2014 following the sinking of MV Sewol Ferry, South Korea’s worst maritime disaster, strings of protests erupted across the country, with many turning violent. In recent protests, many demonstrations have been led by the people who lost family from Sewol. They are calling not just for her resignation, but her arrest.

As a Fulbright Korea ETA, I feel like I am experiencing an incredible time in Korea’s history. I live in Gwangju, the heart of the political left of South Korea. Even before President Park was elected, the North and South Jeolla regions have always pulled left, favoring the Democratic Party, a social-liberal political party, in opposition to Park Geun-hye and the Saenuri Party.

I have seen the impressive protests in Seoul twice now, and although they dwarf the protests in any other city, I feel they lack a spirit that I find when I stand among the crowds in Gwangju. For those unfamiliar with this southern city, it was the place of the infamous and tragic May 18 Democratic Uprising in 1980. Also known as the Gwangju Uprising, it was a mass protest against the then national military government. It was brutally repressed, with the official death toll at 170 (unofficial estimates range as high as 5,000), many of whom were students as young as 14. While the Uprising was unsuccessful in bringing about democratic reform in South Korea, it is often considered a pivotal moment in the country’s struggle for democracy.

gwangj_uprising-fountain-torch

May 16th, 1980 – days before the Uprising – university students protested by lighting torches in the fountain of the square in front of the Provincial Office, known as the ‘Torchlight March’ (횃불데행진). In the moving video above, modern protestors emulate this by lighting torches in the same place as years before. [Image from the UNESCO Memory of the World Gwangju 5.18 Archives]

Once again, people fill the square in front of the former provincial office, where the Uprising and subsequent massacre occurred. Standing in the throngs of protestors, there is a pulsing energy; a tangible emotional charge. A strange feeling grips me as I stare across the sea of heads. All of the protests have retained an almost concert or festival-like atmosphere: street vendors dole out food and toys, and entire families–babies in tow–lay out picnic blankets along with their banners and flags. Protest organizers pass out candles, plastic placards, and seat cushions. Everything is a whirl of colors and candles numerous as stars. It is difficult to not get wrapped up in the chorus of “Park Guen-hye out!” or not to feel moved by the impassioned voices of orators and singers.

Relatively new to democracy, the Korean people are still struggling to get the government they deserve. Their anger has been pointed towards improving the country, and through peaceful, cohesive demonstrations, they have come so close to realizing their goals. In a year of political controversy, strife, and increasing violence and discrimination, I feel like I have stood witness to something greater than a simple protest. It gives me hope that people everywhere can unify under our own banner for positive change.

park-guen-hye-protest-gwangju1

The main street in Gwangju filled with protesters

All photographs © Cara Mooney 2016

  1.  gyomushil (교무실), faculty room
  2.  samullori (사물놀이) , a genre of traditional Korean percussion music

Dad - Terrific article. Great summary of what appears to be going on. Well written, objective.
I am impressed. Keep it up.

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How to use your American cellphone in South Korea

cellphones-verizon-korea

How do I get my Verizon phone to work in Korea?

For anyone who has lived abroad, one of the most important, and annoying things to do first is setting up is your cell phone. There are a number of options available to anyone who comes to live in South Korea. There are a number of great websites (The Arrival Store and Korea4Expats) that cover the basics of getting and setting up a phone and provider while in South Korea, so I won’t delve too much into stuff already covered there. However, they don’t go into enough detail. Especially if you have a Verizon phone!

I came over to Korea with an Android Verizon phone. I was told it was unlocked and I could just “stick a new SIM card in and it’d be fine”. Well low and behold, that didn’t work. I got so frustrated that I just bought a cheap Korean Samsung S3 phone. However half way through this year, it died. I knew I wanted a phone that could work in the USA, so I went out on a limb and bought a Samsung S6 (a Korean-made phone, btw) from Verizon, assured again and again it’d be unlocked and compatible with CDMA and WCDMA.

I tried to just take the SIM card from my old phone (provider: SK Telecom) and put it in the new one but it wouldn’t work. I went and then switched to LG U+ after a recommendation from my friend who was using her AT&T phone with them (I hear AT&T doesn’t have the sort of problems that Verizon causes for people. Smh). It didn’t work either…. Well It did, but I couldn’t get any data! Finally, I went to my last option: Olleh. I had heard that it had the most success operating in foreign phones. But… I could only get data this time, no calls nor texts. So it was OK, but a phone should also have a calling feature… But I knew I had made progress. I spent countless hours with my co-teachers and host family (and finally, just me, alone) running around to provider retailers and having them tell me the same thing: it wouldn’t work. They kept changing the settings and the Access Point Names (APN) and saying it was impossible. Finally, I found one man who knew what the hell he was talking about.

I have a Samsung Galaxy S6, purchased in the USA from Verizon. I use the Korean provider, Olleh. And now things finally work. Here’s what you do:

  1. Confirm that your phone is unlocked. It should be if it was purchased after 2014.
  2. Buy an appropriate fitting SIM card (make sure the size fits your phone)
  3. Make sure your phone gets registered with the company! One idiot who first set up my phone didn’t do this, so it caused problems with validation down the line…
  4. Go to Settings -> Mobile Networks -> Network mode (change this to LTE/GSM/UMTS
  5. Go to Settings -> Mobile Networks -> Access Point Names:
    A new APN should be automatically generated, however if it doesn’t, go to “Add” to make one manually and fill in the following:
    – Name: kt
    APN: alwayson.ktfwing.com
    – Proxy:
    – Port:
    – Username:
    – Password:
    MMSC: http://mmsc.kfwing.com:9082
    – Multimedia message proxy:
    – Multimedia message port:
    MCC: 450
    MNC: 08
    – Authentication type:
    – APN:
    APN protocol: IPv4
    APN roaming protocol: IPv4
    – Turn APN on/off: on
    – Bearer:
    – Mobile virtual network type:
    – Mobile virtual network operator type:
  6. Then magic happens and your phone should work! Hopefully…

It seems that Americans who have the least amount of problems wither have an iPhone or use an AT&T phone. However to the 20+ Korean provider representatives who said it was not possible, here I am today, with a fully functional cell phone in Korea. I wouldn’t wish that stress on anyone else, so I wrote a blog post for support and hope this helps another poor soul like myself…

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Teacher Tales: Vignettes of Teaching Middle School in Korea

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From almost the beginning of school, I have been posting statues on Facebook and Instagram about life at school accompanied with #TeacherTales. This is an year’s worth accumulation of my “Teacher Tales” which has created memorable vignettes of my life teaching at middle school, in South Korea and all the ups and downs in-between.  View full post »

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Boseong Tea Festival

boseong-tea-picking.jpg
Korea has all sorts of festivals and lately it seems like anything can become a festival to bring in more tourism (and it works too!). This weekend became a splendid 4-day weekend since it was also Children’s Day (a national holiday in Korea). As a lover of tea, and just to do something on a long weekend, a few friends and I decided to head to the annual Boseong Tea Festival (보성 다향제) before making our way to Busan.

boseong-tea1

I’ve never actually seen how tea is made or picked. I never cared to know, actually. I knew the idea of the process: pick some leaves. Dry them out. But seeing how it’s done and doing it yourself makes you see it a little differently. We were rushed for time, so we opted not to purchase a basket to fill with tea leaves. Plus we would have then had to go to the tents in the valley and pound out and roast the tea leaves by hand for however long that would’ve taken. You can see a photo of the process below. In the third panel, an ajumma1 shows us how fresh tea leaves are put into these massive heated iron bowls. She then squats down (Korean squat of course with your heels on the ground) and proceeds to toss the leaves and press them to remove all moisture. This process is repeated until they have become the tea you put into your drink…

 

I do intend to go back to Boseong when they’re not having a tea festival. There was too many people and it was very warm. It’s only an hour and a half away from Gwangju. It’d be nice to go back and calmly pick and make tea. The tea that was most available was 녹차, or green tea. Very high quality tea.

Since we were a large group of foreigners, one tea stand called us over to sit down and try some of their tea. Of course cameras were produced and our photos were taken. Many people love taking promotional photos with your “typical” foreigners in them. It can get annoying, but fortunately we were compensated with very tasty tea and our own bags of tea given to us free from the very nice ajusshi 2.

  1. Word for older Korean woman
  2. Word for older Korean man

Dad - Cool. Never knew that stuff about tea either. Who were the other women?

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Fulbright Spring Conference on Jeju Island

jeju-conference1

We had our Fall Conference in the historic city of Gyeongju and this past weekend Fulbright had its Spring Conference hosted on Jeju Island, often referred to the “Hawaii of Korea” (although the palm trees are actually imported). It was a very long weekend. We arrived in Jeju Friday afternoon. From Gwangju there’s a small international airport which offers a 1 hour flight to Jeju. Much more convenient than the ferry.

On a side note, there was hardly any security at the airport! I was entertaining the idea of getting a caffeinated beverage, and asked if there was a place to buy something on the other side of security. I was informed that I could just get it now and bring it through security. Wait, what!?! Bring a liquid through security and onto a plane?! Felt like I was back in 2000… I happily bought a caramel macchiato (a new-found love) and sipped it right up to take-off.

We spent all of Friday inside going through training seminars and various lectures. While beautiful blue skies taunted us from the windows, we spent practically the entire Saturday listening to presentations by Fulbright researchers. Fulbright has two main grants: ETA (English Teaching Assistant) grants and research grants for undergraduate through post-doctorate level scholars. This was my first meeting the Fulbright researchers and hearing what they’ve been working on. If you want to find out more about their research, the Fulbright Alumni Relations Association has been doing various interviews with ETA and Alumni alike.

jeju-flowers

Exploring Jeju

I was told that in past years there was more time to explore, however due to budget restrictions, instead of getting Monday off, things were cut short. Thus the full day tour scheduled for Sunday was made half day. We did get some time on late Saturday afternoon and Sunday after the tour to some of our own exploring. I also got my photo with the famous Jeju guardians, dol hareubangs (돌 하르방), also comically referred to as the “penis men” because of their phallic appearance and their association with good fertility and the myths that touching it will guarantee a male offspring. They have become the mascot of the beautiful island.

I was told that in past years there was more time to explore, however due to budget restrictions, instead of getting Monday off, things were cut short. Thus the full day tour scheduled for Sunday was made half day. Still we were able to see Seongsan Ilchulbong and Jusangjeolli.

Seongsan Ilchulbong/Sunrise Peak

With a crater 600m in diameter and 90m high, and 99 sharp rocks lining the rim, Seongsan Ilchulbong is viewed as the literal crown of Korea. Formed by hydrovolcanic activity 5,000 years ago, this UNESCO Heritage Site is home to six rare plant species and magnificent sunrises. Ranked No. 1 on CNN’s list of “50 Beautiful Places to Visit in Korea,” Seongsan Ilchulbong has served as the backdrop for numerous Korean films and dramas. A well developed trail leads up the side of the peak and will take 20-30 minutes to walk up. From the top there are fantastic views of the town below and geological formations on the mainland caused by years of volcanic activity.

Jusangjeolli

The Jusangjeolli pillars were formed when lava from Hallasan erupted into the sea 200,000 years ago. Hexagonal in appearance, geologists state the stress of changing temperatures caused the shooting lava to immediately cool and solidify into the shapes seen today. Jusangjeolli runs for over 2km along the Daepo coast and hosts waves over 20 meters tall. The Jusangjeolli cliffs are a popular spot for fishing and have been designated an official natural monument.

 

 

 

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Where I Pretend I’m in a Historical Korean Drama

There are many famous hanok villages in Korea, but arguably one of the most famous and well-preserved is located in Jeonju (전주한옥마을). So what do you do on a Saturday when you have nothing planned? Take a bus ride to your nearest hanok village with a friend, convince her to wear hanbok with you so you can feel pretty and dance around gorgeous old architecture taking photographs and eating delicious food. That’s what.

My friend, Katrin, and I made an impromptu decision to go after she brought it up as a place she had wanted to go to for a while. Honestly, I hadn’t previously known anything about it. It was only about 2 hours away from Gwangju by bus. The weather was perfect; not too hot or too cold, but a nice, sunny day. I hadn’t realized people went there to rent hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) for the day, but given how affordable it was, I convinced Katrin we should do it.

I opted for a more traditional hanbok: one with a short top (jeogori) popular during the Joseon dynasty and subtle embroidery. I loved it! Katrin’s top is the longer style, usually worn by court ladies. If you notice in the photos below, people are wearing all different styles of hanbok. Many have huge, full skirts with gold or silver decoration, worn by royalty in the past. There’s modern-style hanbok and many are dressed as gisaeng (known as the “Korean geisha” although that’s a bit of a stretch). Their outfits were tighter around the waist with lavish hair decorations and styling. View full post »

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How to Pack for Teaching in South Korea

This has been written with Fulbright ETAs in mind, but besides things specific to the Fulbright Korea program, this list can apply to EPIK, TaLK, and even JET teachers.

Coming to join the teaching-craziness in Korea?! 축하합니다 and welcome! This is a compiled list of of experiences and advice so you are at least physically prepared to embark on your journey. This is an extensive list. Most things can be easily purchased in Korea or found online at Gmarket or at Costco. It all depends on how frugal you want to be; you can find almost anything if you’re willing to pay enough. I’ll cover also things that are harder to come by too…

After living in Korea for a year, teaching at a middle school, I will try my best to make things as straightforward as possible. Also, since I’m a woman, I’m gearing this for women, however this has good advice for men too! I also will cover ideas for gifts and professional teacher outfits. If you haven’t considered bringing gifts, please reconsider. Gift-giving is an important custom in Korea. So let’s begin… View full post »

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Hiking Mudeungsan

This past weekend I finally got around to hiking Gwangju city’s famous: Mudeung Mountain. So many things are named after the mountain: streets, restaurants, libraries, stores, markets… Since I arrived, people have told me I need to go to Mudeungsan Mountain National Park (무등산국립공원). So I finally looked into going when a friend was visiting me in Korea. It was a stroke of luck that the same bus I take to work also goes to the park entrance. It’s that close! Only a 40 minute bus ride to the last stop on the line.

Throughout Korea’s history, mountains have played a powerful role in the myth making and religion of the times. It is said that Cheonwangbong Peak was worshiped and considered a mountain of God. Today you can find a several temples near the base of the mountain. The trail my friend and I took lead us past Jeungsimsa, and Wonhyosa Temple. At Wonhyosa there was a temple service going on and you could hear the monks chanting inside. It made for a very serene feeling. View full post »

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