South Korean Web Protesters Take To The Streets Over US Beef

Sine May 2nd, South Korea has seen nearly daily protests against its new president, Lee Myung-bak, over his decision to resume imports of U.S. beef, which were suspended in 2003 after an outbreak of mad cow disease. In the history of South Korean collective action, these protests show the merger of Korea’s penchant for both the Internet and street demonstrations. Some media have dubbed this protest movement as “Web 2.0 protest,” which build off of the themes we identified in our case study on the impact of the citizen journalism site OhmyNews during the 2002 Presidential election.

Yesterday, the International Herald Tribune discussed in detail the role of the Internet on these demonstrations. When South Korea’s President Lee signed a deal in April with the U.S. to lift a ban on American imported beef, it quickly became a hot topic on the Internet among young people and lead to widespread fears of mad cow disease. In just one week, about 1.3 million students signed a petition on an Internet forum calling for the President’s impeachment. On May 2, thousands of teenagers who had networked in cyberspace and coordinated via mobile phone poured into central Seoul chanting “No to mad cow!,” igniting South Korea’s biggest anti-government protest in two decades.

After examining the increasing number of global political protests that have started in cyberspace (e.g. boycott against Carrefour in China and “A Million Voices against FARC” in Columbia), I found some interesting similarities in the process of Web protests that lead to street demonstrations.

• Online discussion forums and personal blogs are the ideal seedbed for Web protests. Internet users, especially young users, often respond quickly to current events or government policy and begin virtual petitions with alluring slogans, such as “No more FARC” and “Completely Boycott Carrefour”, on online forums or their personal blogs. These virtual petitions and slogans are quickly circulated in hundreds and thousands of online forums and blogs. After cyber protests go viral, often simultaneously stirring up people’s anger or nationalistic sentiments, it is time to stop talking online and take to the street. Cyber activists post plans and schedules about upcoming street protests on online discussion forums, and circulate such information immediately in cyberspace. For example, one media outlet has reported that many South Korean demonstrators rely on internet forums to get information on rallying points, weather forecasts and riot police presence.

• Social networking sites, Instant Messenger (IM), and Short Message Service (SMS) are tools to recruit more demonstrators among peer groups and help organize group actions and coordinate each protester in street demonstrations. For example, in the boycott against Carrefour in China, protestors, especially college students, sent short messages via mobile phone and IM to their friends asking them to participate in the boycott and distribute information about local protests. Besides, the use of IM, SMS, and social networking sites can allow for more efficiently organization of large street protests (often divided into small group actions) and also allow protestors to avoid government crackdowns. (See more cases about how social networking tools and SMS are used to organize protests)

• Camera phones, webcast, and networked citizen journalists extend the influence of street demonstrations to larger audiences, often tapping into large transnational networks. With camera phones, digital camcorders, and wireless Internet technology, demonstrators can instantly shoot and upload photos and videos to Internet sites during the demonstration. In South Korea’s protest, dozens of sites, like OhmyNews a popular participatory media web site, have been offering live broadcasts of demonstrations using videos or photos collected from volunteers with some even hiring commentators to liven up the action. The videos, photos, and stories from citizen journalists not only provide independent and (arguably) trustworthy information about protests that may encourage more citizens to participate, but also can serve to protect protesters from crackdowns by the authorities. In South Korea’s protest, a blogger suggests, “Take pictures and videos whenever police use violence or arrest people. Send the footage to OhmyNews by dialing 5055.”

Despite the positive side of young people’s passion on the Internet, we still should be cautious about irrationalism in cyberspace that may threaten online democracy (as I mentioned in my last post). Yesterday, South Korean President Lee warned that “the spread of false and incorrect information through the Internet and spam email is threatening the people’s rational thinking and mutual trust.” One political scientist in South Korea said that “In the online discussions on beef, you are welcome only if you voice a certain opinion, and you’re attacked if you represent an opposing view.” Regarding Chinese boycott against Carrefour, some media said that the young protesters are very irrational, “since there’s no proof that the French company has been part of the anti-China conspiracy”.

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6 Responses to “South Korean Web Protesters Take To The Streets Over US Beef”

  1. yvette Says:

    Amid OhMyNews’ contribution to a new model of participatory journalism, many people (especially those outside of Korea) fail to note that the site is an extreme leftist site when it boils down to Korean politics.

  2. CHAE S. SONE Says:

    mad cow message

    The candle light demonstrators are going to continue the anti beef march, eventually “You don’t have to eat American beef.” The demonstrators should know that Americans eat beef every day without mad cow disease yet. You think that you can stop buying American beef in anti American sentiment. If you want to have trade war with America, you will fail because Americans could avoid Korean goods very easily, such as cell phone, Samsung TV, radio, computer, etc. You can reject one item of American good, beef. But Koreans will lose the American market which feed you beef and other good things.

    You hate Americans. Then, who would love you Koreans? Russians, Chinese or Japanese? Even if they do, they could not feed you beef.

    You shook up the new Korean government. Communists and mad cow ghosts have immensely damaged South Korea. President Lee Myung Baek seems to be very weak, showing just gentleness. He should have shown his tough stand. If the civilian government loses the control, the communists could walk down to South.

    If anyone thinks Kim Jong IL would bring his own workers’ paradise to South, he is absolutely empty headed. There is no mad cow in America but in the empty Korean heads.
    You have had enough demonstrations. The president, the people and the world got your message.

    If South Korea loses American market, do you think Russians or Chinese could help you?

    I hope that they would understand the situation of South is always in a danger. Do you know that only a small piece of the land is left in the South Korean hands?

    The weak Korean government could not help the 6 nation de-nuclearization conference. Who can unify the divided Korea? It is you.

  3. chae sone Says:


    1. The opposition leaders unfairly treated the new government without giving enough time for the honey moon. With the issues of mad cow they falsely pushed the government into these social disorders, with propaganda. The government should investigate if Communists involved in the anti government actions.

    2. Mad cow disease demon impressed to other nations as if it is an ant American movement.

    3. Pro-mad cow national assembly members revealed their poor judgment. All assembly members have duty to represent their constituents and to propose their political agenda according to the will of them. The assembly members, without going to the national assembly, participating the disorderly demonstration are like promoting the mob rule. Such national assembly members do not understand their duties and responsibilities and displayed their stupidity.

    4. Korean is facing a new economic crisis, that is, rising price of crud oil. The oil price is shaking up the economic stability of the world. Koreans government should prepare how to face this crisis. The citizens should give enough time to the government so that it could have ideal social planning.

    5. If the opposition national assembly members continue to promote the demonstration, the citizens have the right to recall them because of their poor judgment or irresponsible political action.

    5. Remember President’s anti nuclear policy is winning. Now Kim Jong il appears to be coming Gorvachev Kim. The Mad cow demonstration in South seems to display the segment of the lightheaded Korean population.

    6. The Catholic priests’ demonstration to blame the government is a late reaction to the crisis in wrong way. They should have asked the demonstrators
    Proper judgment without going into destructive direction.

    7. If the mob action continues, the government should declare a marshal law and restore the social order. Otherwise, they plunge the society into an anarchy which will be fatal to the economy. Send the stupid pro-communists to the workers’ paradise which going to disappear soon with American economic aid.

    8. In America, millions eat beef everyday and work happily. Why do you worry so much?

  4. » Howard Rheingold to Korean Protestors: “A Smart Mob Is Not Necessarily a Wise Mob” I&D Blog Says:

    […] we need to make sure that smart mobs become smarter, and less mob-like. (You can read our earlier post for more background on the […]

  5. chae s. sone Says:

    Dear friends:

    It is chu suck holidy. Have a big beef soup party with all the good friends.

    Ask the mad cow demonstrators to have a party. For it is party time. The demonstration is over as there is no mad cow is coming, only ignorant communists.

    If Kim Jong Il comes to South. Treat him nicely with beef soup. For everyone likes it.

    Under the beef demoncrary everyone has an equal chance to eat beef in any style of cooking. If you don’t like beef, don’t worry. All Americans will eat the good beef for you. Have nice holiday!!

  6. Internet & Democracy Blog » South Korean Blogger Freed Says:

    […] sphere. This is not the first time that these elements have tangled: some of you may remember last year’s June riots coordinated and driven by web protestors, and the large role that the community news site OhmyNews played in the 2002 election. The South […]