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South Korea: Actress-Activist Spearheads Protests with Social Media

In South Korea, entertainers are changing the political landscape by spearheading protests in social media. Among several influential comedians and actors, actress-activist Kim Yeo-jin, has been the most controversial figures for several weeks now for her active on-and-offline political engagement.

Kim Yeo-jin is a 38 year old actress and power Twitter user with more than 89,000 followers. Kim has voiced her opinions on multiple social issues, including a nationwide ‘half-tuition protest’ and the recent incident surrounding Hanjin Heavy Industries‘s conflict with its labor workers.

Starting from early January 2011 when she fought against layoffs of cleaning staff at Hongik University, Kim has grown more vocal and prominent in the Twittersphere over the months. She even earned a nickname ‘goddess of Twitterphere‘ [ko] and created a new term ‘social-tainer‘ [ko], a combination of social and entertainer to refer to entertainers who actively engage in social issues, often by using social media. Bloggers often set her apart [ko] from a politainer (politics +entertainer) as Kim does not support any political party.

Kim's recent tweets were mostly about the Hanjin's violent clampdown on its union protest. Kim (@yohjini) tweeted [ko] on June 17:

Image of Kim Yeo-jin during protest, from Wiki Tree site, Creative Commons Image.

Image of Kim Yeo-jin during protest, from Wiki Tree site, Creative Commons Image.

6월 10일 밤, 11일 낮, 트위터러들이 미친 듯이 자판을 눌러 한진중공업을 검색어 1위로 만들었을 때, 제발 용역침탈 기사 좀 써달라 했을 때, 침묵하다가 제가 연행됐다고 하니 제 전화가 불이 났었습니다.

On the night of June 10 and on the afternoon of June 11, Twitterers have made ‘the Hanjin Heavy Industries’ the most searched keywords by madly typing about it. And people have begged the media to write something about the violence done by the company-hired gang (to drive away the workers). Journalists did not respond to any of these. But when I got arrested, my phone rang like crazy as if it was about to burst into flames.

After this tweet, Kim posted a YouTube video of the clampdown with English subtitles. On June 16, Kim tweeted in English with a link to an article about the protest:

I'm a Korean actress supporting Kim, the Korean worker who's been staying on a crane 4 160 days protest english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_e…

On June 12, Kim live-tweeted [ko] her arrest. Kim was arrested for breaking into a building while protesting with laid-off workers. The workers stressed that the company fired them with an excuse of cutting down the deficit, but in fact, the firm suffered no major financial difficulties, according to one consumer report [ko].

나오다 잡혔어요 yfrog.com/kjwpjwj

I got arrested on my way out.yfrog.com/kjwpjwj

Several minutes later, Kim explained about the charges [ko] against her:

폭력혐의등에관한 법률위반과 집단 건조물 침입 죄라고 하네요.. 긴급체포

I was charged with violating articles on violent crimes and breaking into the building in a group. They issued an urgent arrest.

Verbal attacks

The more visible Kim gets, the more backlash she receives. On May 18, the 31st anniversary of the Gwangju massacre, Kim Yeo-jin tweeted “No matter how you kick and squirm, you are a slaughterer” to former president Chun Doo-hwan who is blamed for commanding a brutal clampdown on protesters in Gwangju.

In response to Kim's tweet, Park Yong-mo, a politician from the ruling Grand National Party tweeted back “crazy bitch!” and went on with invectives “if you’re ugly, shouldn’t you shut your mouth?”. As his downright slurs drew public criticism, Park removed his Twitter account. Park's comments are still circulating online in captured images. [ko] It was revealed later that Park slandered Kim on his Facebook page. Park reportedly wrote “when you are clueless, you should lay low. We need to control that blabbing kiddo with a whip.”

Most Korean citizens remember Kim as a serious actress who hardly appears on television shows. But as a nationwide protest against high university tuition fees has continued for over several weeks now, people can easily see Kim on major news shows and even on a political debate program.

The ‘half tuition’ was the current President's major campaign promise in 2007. According to a local report, tuition for private universities has continued to skyrocket to reach an average of 7.6 million won (USD 7 thousand) per year and it is partly blamed for turning over 25 thousand college students into credit delinquents. On June 17, more than three thousand rallied against the high cost of tuition.

Some people found an entertainer's political engagement disturbing. On June 16, a fashion columnist, Hwang Ui-gun(@officeh) launched a verbal attack [ko] on Kim via Twitter. In several tweets, Hwang criticized Kim as a ‘disgusting’ human being ‘who appears more on 9 pm prime news shows rather than on entertainment news’ and she has ‘no significance in the acting business’ and even mocked her looks by calling her ‘a woman who resembles a local old lady who sells boiled rice soup’.

Net users who expected Hwang to be more liberal were startled, as Hwang is a publicly known gay guy in the homophobic Korean society. Kim shot back [ko]:

당신이 그동안 국밥집 아줌마와 “뜨지못한”배우들과, “데모하는” 사람들을 어떤 마음으로 대해 왔는 지 잘 알겠습니다. 그 “차별”의 마음을요. 그래도 당신이 차별받을때, 함께 싸워드리죠. 황의권씨 @officeh

Now, I see your discriminatory attitudes towards ‘boiled rice soap ladies’, ‘no-name actors’ and ‘demonstrators’. But when you get discriminated against, I will fight with you. Mr. Hwang Ui-gun.

As Kim became hugely popular online, a hoax twitter account was set up [ko] several weeks ago with an extra ‘e’ added on Kim's ID (@yohjini), thereby reading @yohjinie. It tweeted contradictory messages which Kim would never say in public, but was soon detected by Kim.

Divided response

Blogger Jhjikum praised Kim's courage [ko] to stand against the powerful side:

점잖은 충고에서부터 대단히 직접적이고 위험한 협박이 가해질 수도 있을 것이다. 그럼에도 불구하고 우리는 그녀가 앞으로도 굽힘없는 정직한 소신 발언을 통해 서민 대중의 마음을 대변함과 아울러 돈과 힘을 이용해서 세상을 제멋대로 좌지우지 하려는 일부 가진 자들의 오만에 크게 경종을 울리는 역할을 계속할 수 있도록 격려와 지원을 아끼지 말아야 한다.

Starting from gentle warnings to more direct and menacing threats, (all kinds of) criticisms will be thrown at her. Nonetheless, we need to keep showing our support to her, so she can continue to make uncompromising and honest remarks that represent the ordinary citizen and to sound a warning to arrogant people who want to control the world with their money and power.

While lots of net users and especially Twitterers lavishly laud Kim, conservative media outlets are very skeptical about Kim's political activities [ko] and often undermine them as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘way over the top’. Blogger Joel071106, who opposes Kim wrote [ko]:

요즘 김여진이 가장 많이 외치고 있고, 지지를 얻는 이슈가 뭘까? 바로 ‘반값 등록금’이다. 대한민국 학생들에게 가장 민감하고 그들을 매료시킬 수 있으며 끌어당길 수 있는 문제인 반값 등록금 문제… 그런데 여기에 살이 너무 붙는다. 반값 등록금으로 선동하며 지지층을 모은다음 은근히 거기에 ‘MB퇴진’ 이하 ‘4대강 반대 운동’, 그리고 ‘디자인 서울 반대’를 이어 ‘오세훈 퇴진’까지 껴넣는다. 그러나 진정성이 떨어지는 것이다.

What is the issue Kim Yeo-jin brings out the most frequently and the one getting most public support? it is none other than the half tuition issue, which is the most sensitive and most appealing matter to Korean students… But she piles other issues on this one. With the half tuition issue, she incites the people and makes them her supporters. Then, she includes other issues such as a ‘call for MB to step down’ [note: MB is the sitting president's initials], ‘protest against four major river project’, ‘Anti-Design Seoul project’ and ‘a call for Oh Se-hoon to leave’. [note: Oh Se-hoon is mayor of Seoul city] The innocence is lost over this series of behavior.

An influential political blogger IAmPeter defended [ko] Kim's sincerity.

그녀는 돈이 되는 CF도 섭외가 되지 않을 것입니다. 광고주 입장에서 그녀는 광고에 출연시킬 수 없는 과격한 배우가 되었습니다. 어쩌면 드라마에서도 그녀를 볼 수 없을 것입니다.[…] 돈도 못 벌고,배우가 연기도 못 하게 될 수 있는데 그녀는 계속 거리로 나섭니다.[…] 그녀가 오지랖 넓다고 욕을 먹으면서 거리에 나서는 이유는 단 한 가지입니다. 가슴이 시키고 머리에서 이것은 아니라고 자꾸 이야기하며, 행동하게 하기 때문입니다.

(Due to her political activities) She may not be selected for a lucrative commercial. She has already become an extremist figure undesirable for commercials. We may even not be able to see her in soap operas in the future.[…] She is blocked from making money and acting (although she is an actress), but nonetheless, she still took to the streets.[…] People throw curses at her for being too nosy. But there is one reason that keeps her going despite all criticisms: her heart tells her to act and her head convinces her ‘this should not be happening’.

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