Two members of the so-called Sewol Generation came to downtown Seoul on Nov 19 to protest the current political scandal.

The Sewol Generation: Young South Koreans Open Their Eyes to Politics

The Sewol ferry sinking was arguably the biggest tragedy in South Korea’s recent history. After covering the disaster, I noted: “Any expectation I had for South Korea as a modern democratic state disappeared from my mind after seeing how this government handles the ferry disaster and treats the victims’ families and survivors.”

It was sickening to see this government try to deflect blame by systematically marginalizing the victims’ families and obstructing the truth-seeking process. There is still no satisfying conclusion, no healing after the trauma.

But the disaster and its aftermath affected young people even more. That 250 teenagers drowned on a school trip due to layers of corruption and ineptitude of adults touched nerves. For these young people, the Sewol sinking is personal because they, too, could have been victims. Their identity has become inextricably linked to the catastrophe. They are the “Sewol Generation.”

Most adults did not care to see how the Sewol and its consequent trauma have been shaping their collective consciousness and conversation. Their voices were pulled on the anniversaries for sound-bites and then quickly dismissed. The general attitude of the establishment has been ‘adults will take care of this, so young people should go home and study.’ But young people will obey no more. The Sewol, followed by the massive corruption scandal that now plagues the government, has politicized teenagers, some as young as middle school students. 

After the grueling suneung exam on Nov. 17, some 70 students were in downtown Seoul to demand President Park Geun-hye’s resignation over the recent scandal involving her friend Choi Soon-sil. And on Saturday, Nov. 19, an estimated 600 students came from across the country to protest. They owned the name Sewol Generation and voiced their disappointment in the government and South Korean adults.

“Adults tell us to stand still and study, but we feel like we have to do something now.”

Kang Min-ji, a 17-year-old high school junior from the city of Seongnam, just south of Seoul, said during the protest on Saturday. Kang also explained how the phrase “stand still” itself was an insult to the Sewol Generation. It refers to the public announcement that kept on playing onboard while the Sewol ferry was capsizing and the ship’s crew were escaping. It stopped the passengers on the ship from attempting an escape and contributed to the tragic loss of 304 lives.

Kang Min-ji, left, and Moon Soo-wol are high school students from Seongnam. They are volunteering at the youth protest on Saturday. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)
Kang Min-ji, left, and Moon Soo-wol are high school juniors from Seongnam. They came to volunteer at the youth protest on Saturday. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)

“I am now the same age as the Sewol victims. All my friends definitely share and feel the impact of the Sewol disaster,” says Choi Su-jin, another high school junior from Seoul. “I was disappointed with President Park’s handling of the Sewol, and I felt betrayed when I heard about the president’s scandal. My friends and I don’t recognize Park Geun-hye as our president anymore.”

During the protest on Saturday, a student after a student went on a makeshift stage on a truck and made public speeches. It was refreshing to see for once adults relegated to the sideline and listening to what the younger generation have to say. It rarely happens in South Korea.

Choi Su-jin is a high school student from Seoul. "My friends and I don't acknowledge Park Geun-hye as president anymore." (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)
Choi Su-jin is a high school student from Seoul. “My friends and I don’t recognize Park Geun-hye as our president anymore.” (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)

It is now known that President Park’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, used her influence to obtain preferential treatment for her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra. Young people are especially outraged by the fact that Chung won admission to the prestigious Ewha Women’s University under a highly questionable circumstance. Most students spend years studying in the hope of going to a good school. 

All the students I interviewed expressed their disillusionment over the eroding notion of fairness in the country, which has been dubbed “Hell Joseon” by a growing number of citizens for its rigid, feudalistic hierarchy.

“I was dumbfounded when I heard about Chung’s privileges. I know the world is not fair, but as students, we should all be at least on the same starting line. I was happy to hear that Chung’s high school graduation and university admission would be cancelled,” said Shin Tae-yang, 17, from Seongnam.

The students I interviewed Saturday saw a direct link between the Sewol disaster, the current political scandal and Hell Joseon. They mentioned that money and bbaek — derived from the English word “background” — now seem more important than honest and hard work. They have come to the stark realization that so-called “gold spoons” — those born into privilege — rule South Korea.

A university student wearing a black mask with a yellow ribbon on top of it is listening to a student speaker at the protest on Saturday. The yellow ribbon has become the symbol of the Sewol ferry disaster. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)
A student wearing a black mask with a yellow ribbon listens to a student speaker at the youth protest on Saturday. The yellow ribbon has become the defining symbol of the Sewol ferry disaster and can be seen on many South Korean students’ bags. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)

I was in awe after interviewing these students. They were intelligent, well-informed and articulate, and it seemed they would be better suited to lead this nation than all of us adults. They did not trust and take at face value the authority of the state and the elites. Even though they still must abide by the rules of the system, not least the education system that tells them what to study and how to spend their youth, they have begun to question these constrictions. 

Shin Moo-hyun, a student from Seongnam, said, “The elites in South Korea dismiss the youth easily. Sometime I wonder if they care about us at all. We came to the protest today to voice ourselves and make them hear us.”

Shin Moo-hyun, left, and Shin Tae-yang are high school students from Seongnam. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)

Judging by such words, the Sewol Generation is here to fight, and their evolution into a formidable political force is highly anticipated. Young people have always been an agent of change in the history of South Korea. They were part of the movement that forced the country’s first president, also accused of unbridled corruption, to resign. They also fought for democratization under military dictatorships. But those once-passionate young activists went on to become part of the status quo, growing fat from the newly won privileges. They failed to tackle myriad political and social problems in South Korea.

After three decades of lull in widespread grassroots activism, the Sewol Generation may go on to solve the problems we face — inequality, corruption, entrenched patriarchy and the culture of rigid hierarchy — rather than submitting to and being co-opted by them. 

If that does happen, this country would owe Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil a great deal for bringing about a political awakening. And the deaths of the Sewol victims and the sufferings of their families would not be in vain.

As one Twitter user said, “May this generation be the one that will change a system that has repeatedly hurt and failed them.”

Cover Image: Hwang Hyeon-eun and Lee Ji-won, 13-year-old middle school students, came from Incheon to attend the youth protest. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)