Sympathy For Student Vengeance?

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“Did you see this?”

On the morning of June 14, a scary message started circulating in my group Kakao chat with other peers at Yonsei University. The message read: “There has been an explosion on the university campus. While the possibility of revenge crimes, terror or further explosions is being investigated, access to Building A of the Engineering Department may be restricted.”

A sense of horror emerged in the chatroom. “There are police in front of the building right now,” one of my friends reported in our group on KakaoTalk, South Korea’s most popular messaging app. “The building is taped all the way around and there are ambulances and a police line at the main gate.”

Soon, the news flashed up on the front page of portal site Naver and the keywords “Yonsei terror” began trending. Korean news agencies later reported that the explosion was a hate crime: a grudge-bearing graduate student’s attempt to take revenge on his professor. The perpetrator put a do-it-yourself bomb disguised inside a drink flask and the victim, one Professor Kim, was sent to the hospital with burns.

But the response from South Korean netizens has been interesting. Despite the brutal nature of the attempt, many are openingly sympathizing with the suspect.

Screen-capture from a comment thread on an article. (Source: Naver)

“Investigate the professor too. I wonder what kind of a professor he was, to make a student do this.” (turb****)

“He must pay the price for his crime, but they should look into the motivation of the crime. To most people, this is not even surprising, because relationships between professors and graduate student are often unimaginably close to slavery.” (rexc****)

“Professors did outrageous things to me when I was at college too. My professor coerced me into working for his company, saying it’d help me get a job…. But I was bound to it until I graduated. He even used my bank account for money laundering. Gapjil by professors has got to stop.” (emot****)

Gapjil is an act of status-based power abuse or bullying: A person of higher social status is referred to as gap (eul is the lower-status counterpart), and jil is a general slang for “doing.” Anything can be used as a pretext for gap’s exploitation — be it age, employment status, or wealth.

In South Korea, professors are often the ultimate gap figures to graduate students, whose fate lies in their hands. I mean, if your advisor starts hating you, how are you going to get your master’s and doctor’s theses reviewed and passed? How are you going to secure a future in academia, especially if the professor is well-established?

“So, I finally got kicked out the lab.” Starting last November, a group of graduate students at Korea University started a web cartoon called “The Sad Portrait of Graduate Students.” Based on real-life examples, the fictional comic tells the story of graduate students being exploited by professors. (Source: “The Sad Portrait of Graduate Students”)

“Without your professor’s support or recommendation letter, it’s impossible to move forward — to get employed or enroll in post-doctorate programs, for example. It puts the students in the position of eul, and leaves little choice but to obey,” said Song Seung-hyun, a teaching assistant at Yonsei University.

“I cannot support this act of terrorism, but this is something we should take particular notice of. It’s an unprecedented type of a crime pattern, and it’d be correct to look at this as just one more instance of social grievances being vented, rather than dismissing it as an act of personal vengeance.”

There are plenty of horror stories when it comes to professors’ gapjil.  In one incident that shocked the country two years ago, a professor at an anonymous institution forcibly fed his students urine and human feces.

And remember the Choi Soon-sil scandal? Professor Yi In-hwa (whose real name is Ryu Cheol-gyun) of Ewha Womans University was prosecuted last year, after being found guilty of threatening and forcing his teaching assistant to take an exam on behalf of Chung Yoo-ra, Choi’s daughter who was eventually expelled from the university. 

Professors are repeatedly accused of physically and sexually assaulting their students, stealing their scholarship money (at Kookmin University, Jeju University and more), and exploiting students’ labor and ideas. Sometimes, thesis papers, published in the name of the professors, are actually found to be the work of their research assistants.

“We [graduate students] usually write two thesis papers; one gets published in our name, and the other just gets taken by our assigned professor. They don’t do anything, but it gets published in their names, and our names go in as the second author,” said Kim Soo-youn, a former graduate student of Yonsei.

She told me that her colleagues immediately assumed the bombing suspect must have been a graduate student, upon hearing about the incident. “We all hoped it would be our professor who was bombed,” she laughed, but soon added, “And when we said we wished our professor would die, we meant it, wholeheartedly.”

“Give us back our research copyrights,” two graduate students are demonstrating, accusing the professor of stealing their research studies. (Source: “The Sad Portrait of Graduate Students”)

Kim told me that her professor used to call her up on a regular basis and make her do all kinds of chores — the kinds of things a personal secretary would do. “I booked travel insurance for her so that she and her husband could go on vacation. My colleague once sent a bus timetable to his professor after he yelled at him to ask when his bus was coming.”

“We [graduate students] are nothing more than tools to them,” Kim said. “You can’t expect the least bit of respect.”

“Enslavement” is a word often used to describe the relationship between professors and their assigned graduate students, or research assistants. According to a report by the Presidential Committee on Young Generation, a government committee dealing with general issues regarding the youth, about half of all students in master’s programs had experienced being maltreated.

I wondered if this word wasn’t too histrionic. “But the professors I’ve met are all so nice,” I would say to my older peers at Yonsei. The ones in graduate school would laugh out loud, saying, “The professors put an angel’s face in the morning, in front of the undergraduate students…only to come back to the office and release their anger on us.”

Graduate students are situated in a more intimate environment with their professors than their undergraduate peers, trapped in an interest-based relationship in which professors have the power to exploit them, usually without repercussion — the Yonsei bombing being a notable, and rather unfortunate, exception to the rule.

The suspect in the Yonsei bombing confessed his guilt after being caught yesterday. He insisted he had been repeatedly overworked and reprimanded by the professor in question, which drove him to plan the bombing since last month.

Korean daily newspaper Dong-a Ilbo reported that the bomb, manufactured in similar fashion to one of Islamic State’s “improvised explosive devices,” could have inflicted more serious harm. Many are also condemning the act, insisting that grudge-bearing cannot justify an act of terrorism.

 

Cover image: (Source: “The Sad Portrait of Graduate Students”)

Seohoi is an intern at Korea Exposé and an undergrad at Yonsei Underwood International College, where she studies political science and international relations.