Saturday, June 6, 2009

Mourning a Hero – and Defying Another.

Two weeks ago a tragic thing happened; the former Korean President killed himself. The sadness generated by this act was an interesting thing to witness, the Korean people united in mourning for this man who was, no doubt, a great leader in his day, but whose career was marred with scandal and charges of corruption. I am not qualified enough to say whether or not he was guilty of these things, but a great many people thought he was. Either way what happened was tragic. His rise to power was inspiring, making this end seem all the more unfitting. Across the country candlelight vigils were held to commemorate his life, and in Cheongju I attended an outdoor service where speakers, poets, and musicians, along with hundreds of the faithful paid their respects. There was a line of hundreds of people that stretched around the block, each person waiting to take off their shoes and bow in front of a picture of the president. Although I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, it was moving to see so many people paying tribute to a man they obviously felt great affection for.

Apart from this happening I have continued to take pictures of and around Cheongju, trying to gain a more accurate picture of what life here is like. Here are a few of the most recent:
This is Mr. Jo on his way to catch clams at Daechon Beach.

Taking the bus in Cheongju.


Last weekend I went to Seoul to work with the NGO I am apart of, and I happened to be near City Hall when a big protest was taking place against the current president, Lee Myung Bak. Such things have always fascinated me, and, against the strong advice of a few of my friends, I tried to get around the crowds of riot police engulfing the City Hall area and into the middle of the protest. After several minutes of well-timed maneuvering I made it to the center of the protest, surrounded by hundreds of passionate people chanting for the removal of the president. The atmosphere was electric. The protesters were surrounded on all sides by riot police, but this only seemed to encourage them, and they altered their chant from “out with the dictator,” to “down with the police.” It was great. The circle of police tightened, and the group grew more frenzied – frenzied, but not violent. I looked around me. There were all types of people among the protesters, old, zen looking Korean men with beards, mothers, fathers, even a few kids, and at the front of the protest were the students.
My respect for students has only grown as of late, as they are often so unrestrained and passionate (albeit often misguided) and eager to make they change that they profess. Like it or not, they are the ones who often spur change, who often give a voice to pressing issues, and who are idealistic and ignorant enough to attempt to do the great things that can, and often cannot, be done. Please don’t get me wrong, I know very little about the current administration and I certainly don’t know enough to actually give an opinion, let alone be a part of a protest, but to be among those protesters was a remarkable experience. Although it was chaotic, I had a strange sense of comfort, as if whatever brought together all those people was something genuine.
I spent about an hour standing in the middle of the group, and I met a lot of interesting people. One of my favorite people was an older Korean man who had taken it upon himself to slap an “MB Out” poster to every Police bus he could find.
Watching him one could easily see the relish with which he performed his duty. He was only stopped a few times, and each time he would continue immediately after.

I left only when a large group of “red police” showed up. They were riot police but meaner, with red tape on their helmets, body armor, shields and batons. Yes, I concluded, things were about to get ugly, and being beaten in an anti-government rally wasn’t how I had envisioned my day going, so I slipped out quietly. A few pictures:

The front lines.

The face of the other side.
A job well done.
Trouble brewing.

Just over a month left in Korea. Still uncertain about my future. Still excited at the prospects. Excited about new adventures, frightened about new challenges. Living expectantly.

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