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How ‘candle girls’ lit up Seoul
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승인 2010.07.31  19:52:55
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▲ An illuminated lantern at a candlelight vigil. Photo courtesy Myclub community board

May 2 marked the two-year anniversary of massive candlelight vigils that swept through the streets of Seoul in the spring of 2008.

The political ramifications of the protest, both on and offline are still felt acutely today. Frank La Rue, a U.N. special reporter on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, warned on May 17 after wrapping up a 12-day inspection on the general status of Korea’s human rights that, “full respect for human rights in the Republic of Korea, particularly the right to freedom of opinion and expression, is diminishing, as courts are more restrictive in their interpretation and implementation of existing laws.”

An example of this was the arrest and acquittal last year of Park Dae Sung, also known as Minerva, his Web handle. Park earned his reputation after predicting the demise of Lehman Brothers and has since enjoyed a phenomenal influence on the Net as a prophet of doom.

Alarmed at the unprecedented scale and speed of the online buzz quickly developing into mass street protests in 2008, the Lee Myung Bak administration oscillated wildly in its reaction throughout the first year of its incumbency, sometimes condemning the candlelight vigils as symptoms of an “infodemic” or promising a more conciliatory approach to online voices.

The protest was basically an angry response to a decision made by the conservative government to import American beef to Korea, potentially infected with mad cow disease, without consultation with the public, although it still remains a mystery among local analysts how it actually came about. Political pundits agree, however, that the candlelight vigil was first triggered by teenage girls, and by lots of them.

Some noted that those teenage girls — and boys — were the offspring of the “386 generation” (a term used in the ’90s to describe the generation then in their 30s who studied in the ’80s and were born in the ’60s). Largely liberal in their political leanings, they were Korea’s baby boomers and warriors of the democracy that led the nation out of the iron grip of military dictators in the 1980s. It is probable that their political concerns were passed on to their children.

The “candle girls” themselves, however, said time and again that they took to the street out of an urgent fear that they would become the first consumers of the imported American beef. Obviously, they said, meat importers would supply school cafeterias with the cheap American beef first, due to their limited budgets.

They were plausible scenarios but do not give a sufficient account about how teenage girls were able to communicate with each other and organize the mass protests with such ease and speed.

As an analyst keenly interested in the evolution of technology as a social medium, I cannot help but focus on the use of mobile phones, the most preferred communication device of teenagers who mostly rely on mobile phones for daily exchanges with their friends during school hours, although they also use computers and the Internet heavily.

It is suspected that Net-age teens mostly suffer from short-term memory disorders, to some degree. This is happening due in large part to their almost permanent connection to the Internet, which teens use as their collective brain. When the world of information is just a few key strokes away and readily available, there is no compelling reason to spend your time on rote learning or building memory.

Another prominent trait of Net-age teens discovered from surveys conducted in both sides of the Pacific is that they are more empathetic and well connected to their peers than older age groups.

Well before the mass candlelight vigils last year, Korean teens connected with each other via mobile phones during school days and via the Internet at night, hence forming an interdependent and symbiotic relationship for their daily information queries. To quote evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, it was an intelligent variant of “extended phenotypic effect,” realized in the form of a mobile-networked brain.

When a couple of scary stories about mad cow disease slipped into this viral network, they quickly permeated into almost every juvenile brain at the speed of key strokes. Naturally, the rapid dissemination of the unnerving news boosted by the trust and confidence of the teens’ peers was unparalleled in its viral infectious power and the governmental counter media campaign only exacerbated their skepticism.

Which is how the candle girls became a symbol of mass protest in Korea.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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