THE BOX-OFFICE success of the movie 1987: When the Day Comes has naturally led to an increased interest in Lee Han-yeol, the June Democracy Movement, and Yonsei University. Shortly following this cinematographic triumph, Yonsei University publicly confirmed on Jan. 22, 2018 that it would be establishing an official commemorative organization for Lee Han-yeol, named the Lee Han-yeol Korea Democracy Foundation.
The unexpected yet welcome resurgence of Lee Han-yeol
Released on Dec. 27, 2017, 1987 is a movie that vividly depicts the events that acted as catalysts to the 1987 June Democracy Movement. Lee Han-yeol’s death is historically viewed as one of the most impactful incidents that spurred the Movement. Thus, his story is significantly dealt with in the movie, with Lee appearing as the main figure at the climax in the tear-gas scene.
As of February 13, 1987 has attracted more than 7.2 million viewers*, and has been gaining a considerable amount of coverage in numerous media outlets. News articles are covering everything from movie reviews and stories behind the casting to historical backgrounds. Social media platforms are flooding with posts that urge people to watch the movie if they consider themselves as “true Korean citizens.” Clearly, the movie has become a nationwide phenomenon.
The success of 1987 has led to an increased public interest in the historical records of Lee Han-yeol and Yonsei University during the period of student activism. People are turning their heads from the movie’s fictional recreation of history to the actual historical event. This is evident in the mass of news articles that compare the movie to historical facts, analyzing whether the movie characters are factually based on real figures and whether the settings were accurately recreated. Lee Han-yeol’s name has also frequently appeared on search engine rankings of major portal sites, clearly showing that the public’s interest has escalated since the release of the movie.
There is a possibility that the success of the movie and the public interest that followed suit may have had an influence on the establishment of the Lee Han-yeol Korea Democracy Foundation. Over the past year, Yonsei alumni and student clubs have been signing petitions requesting the establishment of a commemorative organization for Lee Han-yeol, one that is officially run by the University. Approaching the 30th anniversary of Lee’s death, Yonsei responded positively to the request and had been considering it for several months in the past year. Although there was an informal consensus among the school officials, the Board of Directors had not announced an official approval until very recently in January 2018, which, incidentally, happened to be right in the midst of the 1987 boom.
The efforts behind the establishment of the foundation
The efforts of various private organizations and alumni associations were what enabled the founding of this commemorative organization to become a reality. The Yonsei Democracy Alumni Association is one of the two biggest contributors alongside the Lee Han-yeol Memorial Museum. In May 2017, the Yonsei Democracy Alumni Association and the Lee Han-yeol Memorial Museum co-led a petition requesting Yonsei University to make June 9, the day Lee was hit by a tear gas grenade on the head to his death, an official school anniversary.
According to Wu Young-ok, the president of the Yonsei Democracy Alumni Association and one of the directors of the Lee Han-yeol Memorial Museum, the association decided to file a petition “in order to properly commemorate the Yonseians who have sacrificed themselves to continue the tradition of democracy and student activism in Yonsei University.” Although this petition began as a request to make an official anniversary for Lee, Wu mentioned that the Yonsei Democracy Alumni Association had further proposed the Yonsei headquarters to establish an official school foundation for Lee. Fortunately, the school responded with enthusiasm to this new proposal.”
When asked if the success of 1987 had any influence on the university’s decision, Wu responded, “not by a significant amount. The President of Yonsei University had approved the decision last year before the movie was released, and there was an informal agreement among the administration. However, since the final approval by the Board of Directors was given in a board meeting held in January 2018, I personally would not say that the movie did not have any effect on the board’s decision.”
The merits of an official school organization
At first glance, it may be difficult to grasp the significance of the Lee Han-yeol Korea Democracy Foundation. It is not as if there were no memorial services or commemorative exhibitions for Lee prior to the establishment of this foundation. However, it is of absolute importance to note that all previous commemorative events regarding Lee were led by either private organizations, student clubs or the Yonsei alumni community. These were not official events led or hosted by the university. For instance, To 1987, From 2017, the special exhibition commemorating the 30th anniversary of Lee’s death, was held in the Yonsei University Centennial Hall, but was in fact hosted by the Lee Han-yeol Memorial Museum, a private foundation. Yonsei University was one of the many sponsors of the exhibition, but not the ultimate host.
Thus, the significance lies in that all future commemorative services organized by this new foundation will be classified as official school events. Furthermore, the President of Yonsei University, Kim Yong-hak, has been appointed as the president of this foundation. This strongly indicates that the foundation will be funded by Yonsei, enabling it to conduct various commemorative projects in a larger scale with more student participation.
With the establishment of the Lee Han-yeol Korea Democracy Foundation, new programs commemorating and increasing the awareness of those who participated in the student democracy movements will be initiated. According to President Wu, the foundation is currently planning on creating a “Lee Han-yeol Week”, providing lectures on the history of student activism in Yonsei through the in-school Chapel classes, and publishing a book about Lee and other historical student movements. Wu emphasizes that although the name of the foundation is based on Lee, the Lee Han-yeol Korea Democracy Foundation strives to spread knowledge of and honor all democracy martyrs of Yonsei.
By creating an official foundation and appointing the President of Yonsei as its chief director, Yonsei appears to be eager in supporting future commemorative programs for Lee. Projects from the Lee Han-yeol Korea Democracy Foundation will undoubtedly remind Yonseians to appreciate and remember student activists who sacrificed themselves for the democratization of Korea. The establishment of this highly anticipated foundation is the beginning to Yonsei University’s properly paying tribute to a heroic alumnus.
*Korean Film Council