Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Notes on Korean Disability Rights Resistance

In South Korea, people kept telling me that in order to win social change, they have to demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate. I thought perhaps I wasn't understanding (due to my Americanness) and that by "demonstrating" they meant different kinds of activities (ie direct action, lobbying, protest, meetings). However, I checked in with Korean friends who live in Seoul and as it turns out, they really do demonstrate ALL THE TIME. And the police really do try to physically suppress demonstrators. Why? Read on...

This post will be thus be about disability demonstrations in Korea, especially as led by Mr. Yeong-seok Park and the National Solidarity Against Disability Demonstration (NSADD). I refer to Mr. Park with a title as in Korea I never heard him mentioned informally (not as in ADAPT, where we refer to Bob, Stephanie, Mike, etc). The following is taken from my notes at the meeting at Nodl with Mr. Park, Ms. Yeonghui Kim and staff at Nodl.

As mentioned in a previous post, by day Mr. Park is the Headmaster of the Nodl Popular School, and Ms. Kim is the director of the Independent Living Center, where staff focus on services such as personal assistance coordination and transition out of institutions. Nodl has been in existence snce 1993, but as of last December it lost its offices and for three months was temporarily teaching the Popular School in a big tent in a park (yes, outdoors). Now they have the second floor of a green glass building near Hyewha Station, in a university area. The new offices have the community feeling of the old Access Living building on Roosevelt Road. The folks at Nodl, needless to say, have been very impressed with Access Living's new green, universally accessible building on Chicago Avenue (built at a cost of $14 million).

60% of people with disabilities in Korea have only an elementary level of education in a country obsessed wth education (and English!). This is due to factors such as access, poverty and cultural attitudes. The Popular School provides an alternative outside the regular school system for about 40 students to learn areas such as computer education and theater. The 20 teachers are mostly college student volunteers. The School is funded by one third Ministry of Education funds and one third raised from individuals. I asked Mr. Park how it is they were able to get government funding (since they demonstrate against the government all the time), and his response was: they demonstrated for the funding.

At the time of the meeting, the disability community was in the throes of a demonstration against cuts in special education funding, which drew up to 100 demonstrators including teachers and parents. Unfortunately, due to scheduling issues, I was unable to see the demonstration, but any crip visting South Korea really should find out whether any demos are planned and GO.

Going back to NSADD, I asked Mr. Park about decision making for demonstrations. Apparently, the directors of the different organizations in the NSADD coalition meet and figure out what to do. Of this group of directors,about 20% are women. Once decisions are made, they go back to members to discuss what they will do. I beleive Ms. Kim said that there is actually a sexual violence committee within NSADD that is very powerful.

I then asked why Korean disability demonstrations have been so successful (their campaign to win the South Korean version of the Community Choice Act last 43 days). Mr. Park said that the reality of Korean people with disabilities is that they are not given basics for survival. They are successful in exposing the shameful reality of their oppression, and expressing resistance. Korean media tends to show overcomers and successful people with disablties only---it does not, for example, tell the story of homeless people with disabilities, as Man Hoon Jung, age 22, tells in the Korean/English book No More Murders:

They were miserable and hopeless. One old man had a severe cough, but he had to sleep on the floor in the living room during the cold wintertime. It was because the people there, even though they were all old and disabled, didn't want to be bothered by other disabled folks. Sometimes they threw things at each other and threatened each other with a knife. They were all in the same situation and came to the shelter because there was nowhere else to go. Yet, they were all hurting each other... it was all but a fading dream for the disabled. No one there at the shelter ever married. It was nothing but a stupid hope to think of having a normal life for a person who was forbidden to go out of the house and even to be educated.

For Koreans with disabilities, there was NOTHING in the way of supports until about the early 1990s, when activists began to rise up, led by people such as Patriot Tae Soon Jung, who eventually became General Manager of Disabled Peoples' International in Seoul (he passed away at the early age of 34).

So how do activists manage their actions on site? Demonstrations are illegal in Korea, so the leaders and people have secret ways of communicating what to do. Chants are a major part of demonstrations. Sometimes actions are staggered...for example, 10 demonstrators in the past have taken over a road, and the rest follow later.

This is not nonviolent civil disobedience. The NSADD do in fact resist violently, and this why in photos you can see people fighting police. Why the violence? I think there are several factors (and these are thoughts I have pulled togethr from several people). One is Korea's history of oppression by, for example, Japan. Another is that Korea has a history of dictatorshp and oppression. Lobbying, American-style, has not been the historical norm. Yet another factor is the tradition of going to fight, as a warrior, for your family and your people. In addition, there are so many demonstrations in Seoul that the crips need to make theirs stand out---so they fight, and vandalize property, and chain themselves to ladders and go on hunger strikes. The nature of their oppression is so severe that some individuals have killed themselves in protest (I am thinking in particular of Patriot Ok Ran Choi, who led demonstrations but died out of economic and parental deprivation).

Here is a picture of Patriot Choi, laughing in the wind:

They do have to pay legal penalities but the authorities have not yet forced them to go to court. In the US, if we even tapped a police officer, the cops would be all over us.

Often, at the beginning of a big organizing campaign, South Koreans will shave their heads. This is considered a very big deal because one is not suppose to interfere with the body that is given to you by your parents. Tattoos are taboo also for this reason. But the Korean crips have also been known to each put their hair in a box with their name, stack the boxes in a pyramid, and set the whole thing on fire.

Mr. Park discussed some expected developments in Korean demonstrations. With a new President, Myung-Bak Lee (or Lee Myung-bak), who is formerly the Mayor of Seoul, police are expected to become more brutal. They will try separating nondisabled from disabled people, and force folks to go to court. The police have now also received special training against terrorists, so there will be a step up from the usual riot gear wearing, shield bearing, punching and kicking business. In the terrorism training, there is an exercise where a crip is used as a terrorist.

In terms of youth development, Mr. Park says young peoplelack the most supports. They do not have a lot of teenagers involved because Korean parents want their kids to get education, so they focus on that first. The activists have, however, taken youth to two day demos.

A note on independent living services: most folks in institutions can only get out once a week, so Nodl serves people who come by with educational and support services. People in institutions have participated in actions with few repercussions because, as it turns out, the directors of institutions often have little power to punish residents, so they can pretty much do what they want.

At this point, the group showed me a film about the 2006 struggle to win personal assistance legislation in Seoul. This was kicked off when a 41 year old man, Mr. Cho, was found frzen to death in his home. A kitchen faucet in the room next door broke and the water had flowed through to the bedroom and frozen Mr. Cho.

In response, people with disabilties gathered at City Hall, where 39 shaved their heads and vowed to fight until city legislation was won (remember, there are 10 million people in Seoul alone). Their target was the Mayor of Seoul. The struggle lasted 43 days and the height of the action was a six hour crawl across one of the bridges on the Han River. People got out of their chairs and crawled. This was spuured because the city had announnced plans to build an opera house for 70 times the cost of what it would take to provide free PA services. Finally the city government consented to PA legislation and a sister strike was started in Kyeonggi Province for services in that area.

However, a year later in 2007, the community began a hunger strike because they needed enforcement of the PA legislation. Mr. Park was one of those on strike. They fasted with water only for 23 days until at last they won:

free PA services
180 hours a month of PA services
10% self payment is the limit

However the government recently announced cuts, so the struggle in Seoul will begin again soon.

Previously, I posted the Korean disability rights song "Even We Crawl, Even We Die." Despite significant cultural differences and state dynamics, I really admire the South Koreans for what people with disabilities are achieving from outside the system. As an organizer, I have been told over and over again to go wth my gut sense for when to take action, and I think part of that is being true to one's cause. I think the South Koreans really, really, really know how to do that and their willingness to put their lives at risk humbles me.

I am going to live, even if I crawl, I will live eventually.
Even if I die, even if I die, I will live again...

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