A GRADUATE of the College of Theology, Woo Hyun partook in the June democratization movement in 1987 as the student activist leader of the General Student Council. This movement involved large scale protests which urged the ruling government to establish various democratic reforms. At that time, Woo was responsible for arranging the student protests, calling for constitutional amendment for a direct election system. He also recently appeared in the movie 1987: When the Day Comes, which portrays the Korean citizens’ struggle in 1987 for a regime change after the unlawful interrogation and the death of Park Jong-chul, a linguistics student at the Seoul National University. In this interview, Woo takes us back to Yonsei’s 1987.
The Yonsei Annals: Thank you for accepting our interview request. We wholeheartedly appreciate your time.
Woo: Yes, it was a quite difficult decision. I received about 80 interview requests recently, since last year was the 30thanniversary of Lee Han-yeol’s death and the movie 1987 was released. I assume it’s because of that one photo taken during Lee Han-yeol’s memorial procession of Woo Sang-ho and I. Sang-ho was holding the photo of Lee and I was holding the Korean flag. Sang-ho, now an assemblyman, used to be the former president of the General Student Council of Yonsei University in 1987.
However, I rejected all these interview requests. I am no longer an activist. I am just a petit bourgeois living an ordinary life. So it was extremely pressuring to broach my experiences as if I were the hero of that time. Any student who was in that position would have participated in the movement and fought for justice.
Annals: In the movie you appear as Kang Min-chang, the Director General of the National Police, while you were actually the student activist struggling against the authority in 1987. Did you experience any difficulties when empathizing with the character?
Woo: When I heard that the film 1987 was being produced, I sincerely hoped to partake in the movie. I was willing to take any role, whether it was a good-hearted character or not. I honestly did not mind acting as the cameo antagonist. The mere fact that I could participate in this movie was tremendously meaningful.
There was this one line, though, that I could not read, no matter how hard I strived. The line, “Slap! I hit him once, and plop! He just died.” That phrase even hit the headlines of the newspapers back in 1987 to describe Park Jong-chul’s torturous death. It was completely ridiculous. I was supposed to read that line according to the script; however, since I was struck dumb, hesitating to read the line, Kim Yoon-seok who appears as the commissioner Park Cheo-won, read it for me. That line will reverberate in my mind forever, not only because it was part of my scene, but also because that phrase ignited the uprisings.
Annals: Can you describe the protests that occurred at Yonsei University in June, 1987?
Woo: After Lee Han-yeol was hit by a tear gas and transported to the Severance Hospital, demonstrations took place every day near the university. I had never seen that many Yonseians during my three years of student movement. Presumably, all the students participated in at least one protest during that time. Various departments gathered in the amphitheater, and the seats had to be organized regularly because of the enormous crowd. I can still vividly recall the students from the College of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing marching in the theater, wearing their white gowns. It was an amazing view. Also, the four executive members of the General Student Council, including myself, shaved our heads and the president, Sang-ho fasted. Outside of school, students and citizens initiated debates on the spot and exchanged questions alongside the road.
Annals: Do you have any unforgettable memories with Lee Han-yeol?
Woo: I was familiar with Lee but not quite acquainted with him. We both knew each other because we participated in the demonstrations every day, but we did not really start a conversation or greet each other. Actually we weren’t allowed to, since he belonged to Man Hwa Sa Rang, a secret activist school club at that time.
I remember that day, on June 9th, when Lee collapsed. After the protest, the student council always organized a lost and found session in front of the central library. One of the members of the student council picked up a sneaker, but no one claimed it. It was Lee’s shoe.
The students also formed groups to guard Lee’s hospital room until his funeral. We were concerned about the police stealing his body, and the ruling government was definitely capable of committing such act. Along with student activist leaders from other departments, I meticulously identified the hallways of the hospital and ensured that the paths were blocked.
Annals: Many students who had participated in the student protests currently engage in politics. What were your plans after graduation?
Woo: At that time, many student activists aspired to participate in the labor movement. This movement supported the employees to secure their rights from oppressed working conditions. But after I graduated, the range of social movement expanded. It was not only restricted to labor movements. Acknowledging my interests and disposition, Sang-ho suggested that I participate in cultural movements rooted in nationalism. So I prepared for cultural movements, which eventually led to my career as an actor in my forties.
Annals: As there was a student-led democratization movement in 1987, there was the candlelight revolution in 2016. Do you have any thoughts on this movement?
Woo: Ever since the student protest thirty years ago, it was my first time noticing such an immense wave of people. I once again sensed that this spectacular uprising would ultimately win in victory. Thirty years ago, the culture of demonstration was quite unwholesome. Traffic jams were purposefully created to emphasize the chaotic situations. The protests were belligerent as students threw rocks at the police force, who responded with tear gases. So I was inspired to witness that the protesting culture had completely transformed. Many people voluntarily participated in the peaceful revolution. There were even people collecting trash on the roads to prevent disorders. The ten pieces of garbage people collected definitely possess more power than the ten rocks we threw at the police. Those ten pieces of garbage strongly voice what we fought for and dreamt of.
Annals: Any last words to Yonseians?
Woo: Thirty years have passed since I graduated. I believe that when you come across your aspirations, your dream and your true passion during your four years of college, you’ve made it. And remember, there are always times when you need courage. When that time comes, I hope all Yonseians would stand up and show their courage.