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South Korea: New Media-Based Flashmobs Evolve Into ROK Civic Activism Tool
Open Source Center Report 28 May 2010
The use of flashmobs in South Korea has evolved from “just for fun” gatherings to a means of mobilizing new media-savvy users into civic and political action. Flashmobs became increasingly political in 2004 during the run-up to the ROK general elections and reached a peak of influence in 2008, when political flashmobs helped mobilize online citizens to take part in anti-mad cow candlelight street protests. The protests lasted for over 100 days and involved millions of people. As one of the most wired countries in the world, South Korea is especially fertile ground for future flashmobs, given the fun, anonymous, and easily-organized nature of the gatherings. Facilitated by emerging media tools — such as Internet blogs, smart phones, and mobile phone text messaging — potential organizers have ready access to prospective protesters against controversial policies and developments.
Emergence of Flashmobs, Evolution in ROK
Since a flashmob (flash mob) was first organized and executed “simply for fun” in June 2003 in New York,  flashmobs have become a global trend and are increasingly used to convey diverse messages. While the venue is still used to bring crowds together “for fun,” commercial firms have capitalized on flashmobs to promote services or products. Flashmobs have also become a medium for activists and civic groups trying to rally support for political campaigns. 
Flashmobs are “groups of people summoned (by e-mail or text message) to a designated location at a specified time to perform an indicated action before dispersing,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary. A relatively new type of mass public gathering, flashmobs are facilitated by new media — internet-based communication tools, e.g., email, blogs, and social media and mobile telecommunications means like mobile phones, and text-messaging. It is a phrase that combines “flash crowd” — a sharp and often overwhelming increase in the number of users attempting to access a website simultaneously, usually in response to some event or announcement — with “smart mob” — the leaderless gathering and moving of like-minded people who are organized using new media technologies. (Wikipedia)
As early as 19 December 2003, “Supporters of True Journalism,” a South Korean civic group seeking “media reform,” organized a flashmob where participants swept 100 meters of street near the National Assembly to campaign for “clean journalism” that will lead to “a beautiful society of clean politics.” One of the joint leaders of this movement, Ewha University Professor Cho Ki-suk noted that this rally was organized as a flashmob for “the members to have some fun,” but also to sidestep the sticky “Law on Congregation and Demonstration.” 
Flashmobs became increasingly political in 2004, when ROK general elections were held. They reached a peak of influence in 2008, when political flashmobs helped mobilize online citizens to take part in anti-mad cow candlelight street protests. The latter protest lasted for over 100 days and involved millions of people. The 2008 protests were referred to as “Demonstration 2.0” for their dependence on internet-based means of communication and the transformation of organized protest culture into a more open and participatory street festival culture.
- Candlelight street demonstrations of 2008 to protest the ROK’s policy on importing US beef, which was thought to be infected by mad cow disease, started out as a rally on 2 May. Sixty percent of the protesters were female high-school students who spread the word quickly through new media — internet-based media, mobile phones, and texting. As rallies continued, protest grievances grew more varied, and participants grew more diverse — to include families and celebrities, as well as hard-core protesters advocating violence. 
- In 2009, young Pusan citizens staged politically-oriented flashmobs just before US President Obama’s visit to the ROK on 19 November, to protest ROK plans to dispatch troops to Afghanistan. Gathering at a popular department store, flashmobbers wore masks and held leeks in glass bottles as a play on the term “troop dispatch [p’abyo’ng].” 
In April 2010, in the run-up to the 2 June regional elections, civic activist flashmobbers in superhero outfits urged voters to vote in the 2 June elections to protest the regime’s policies. Protesters were ordered by police to disband voluntarily or face arrest for violating the “Law on Congregation and Demonstration” in staging a series of prolonged protests without prior notice.  This law states that organizers of rallies that will have “opinion-forming impact” on the general public must first notify the police in charge of the proposed site 48 hours ahead of the event.
New Media Key to Engaging Flashmobbers in Quick, Mobile, Legal Manner
South Korea is especially fertile ground for organizing political flashmobs, as it is one of the most wired countries of the world. It has easy access to wireless and broadband and has a tradition of organized street protests. The use of intimately carried, readily available and accessible mobile communication equipment helps to keep the political activities mobile, thus difficult to contain, and are also used to proliferate reportage on the protests instantaneously without screening.
- One ROK commentator pointed out that the power of a mobilized online populace armed with mobile phones, mobile computers, and internet (also known as “smart mob”) was “confirmed” in the 2002 ROK presidential elections. In 2002, the politically-apathetic younger generation was said to have been mobilized into voting via one-to-many SMS text-messaging and calls to mobile phones, which resulted in a younger, progressive president assuming office. 
Blogs and other online communities have also contributed to mobilizing netizens into political activities.
- On 4 July 2008, in the middle of the “30 June-6 July Citizens’ Victory Week of Nationwide Candlelight Protests,” one online community called for a flashmob protest to “STOP2MB [Lee Myung-bak].” Masked protesters congregated on 5 July at the Hongik and Yonsei University areas — popular among people in their teens to twenties — and “collapsed and played dead” at the sound of a whistle, and then walked off at the next whistle. 
- Online communities of women brought together by their interest in fashion, plastic surgery, and makeup, collectively mobilized their members to stage a flashmob protesting the “evil” Media Reform Law, which passed on 23 July 2009. They claimed that the new law would only benefit the “mouthpiece of Goebbel” i.e., major ROK dailies Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, and Dong-a Ilbo, and inhibit freedom of the press to create “a second Hitler [Lee].” 
In Korea, the hit-and-walk nature of political flashmobs have secured these public demonstrations from the legal tentacles of the “Law on Congregation and Demonstration,” and thus flashmobs are an attractive tool for civic activism. 
- In January-February 2004 alone, there were 21 flashmob events organized at different sites via SMS texting via mobile phones or internet, and police were unable to make any arrests ahead of the April 2004 general elections due to difficulties in applying the law to rallies of such a fleeting nature. 
Since 2008, however, the ROK administration’s more aggressive interpretation of the “Law on Congregation and Demonstration” for politically-tinted flashmobs has resulted in near-arrests.
- Participants in flashmobs for high-school students’ rights were escorted away by police for questioning in Insadong in 2009. 
- During campaigning for the 2 June 2010 regional elections, activists staging flashmobs to protest the government’s planned 4-Rivers Project and urging voters to the polls were ordered by police to disband voluntarily or face arrest. 
Potential for Increased Role in Offline Activism
Flashmobs are relatively easy and fun to participate in and have “exceptional publicity impact” because of their guerilla-style, anonymous nature.  Prepared in secret and executed in a quick but fun manner, flashmobs have great potential for simultaneously serving two purposes — both spurring sudden public participation and awareness for a cause in a quick and fun, legal manner, and inciting the younger, online populace to take to the streets to wage protests.
- The potential that flashmobs have to mobilize online masses to offline, public behavior may be found in the expansive growth of flashmobbers. The first and largest online community, Flashmob Daum Cafe, grew to 4,000 members in just two months since opening in 2003 and currently has over 20,000 members. In addition, over 40 flashmob communities have sprouted throughout the country. 
- In the 2004 election year, flashmobs spread as a “new alternative election campaign method” among young people. Election committee authorities struggled to find ways to crackdown on the guerrilla-like activities, which could potentially mobilize politically-apathetic netizens (online citizens). 
The growing importance of internet-based civic activism is recognized by civic organizers and the use of flashmobs as tools for civic activism is expected to grow. ROK civic group leader Ha Su’ng-ch’ang, secretary-general of Hamkkehanu’n Siminhaengdong [civic action together with the people] forecast that “changes in activism methodology — with the use of blogs and flashmobs” will become more prevalent as a means for civic expression. 
The scheduled ROK events shown below are typical of the “flash” points that have in the past sparked large spontaneous gatherings in South Korean. Aided by emerging media tools, such as Internet blogs, smart phones, and mobile phone text messaging, potential organizers have ready access to prospective protesters.
- 2 June 2010: General Elections — to spur voter interest and support
- 31 August 2010: Planned end of US combat troop duty in Iraq — to wage peace protests
- November 2010: G20 Seoul Summit — to wage anti-globalization protests.
1 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 24 May 2010 | | Flashmob | | | (U) | Wikipedia]
2 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 9 March 2004 | | 플래시몹은 진화한다 | | | (U) | Seoul OhmyNews in Korean — Slightly anti-US and pro-North Korea online news site which hosts reporting and analyses contributed by both staff writers and ordinary citizens on ROK politics, economics, social and cultural affairs, and ROK-US relations; URL: http://www.ohmynews.com]
3 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 19 December 2003 | | 현장: 싸리비 플래시몹…’참언론을 지지하는 모임’소리없는 외침 | | | (U) | Seoul OhmyNews in Korean — Slightly anti-US and pro-North Korea online news site which hosts reporting and analyses contributed by both staff writers and ordinary citizens on ROK politics, economics, social and cultural affairs, and ROK-US relations; URL: http://www.ohmynews.com]
4 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 21 February 2010 | | Flashmob Daum Cafe | | | (U//FOUO) | Largest ROK online community of flashmobbers; founded in August 2003; URL://cafe.daum.net/flashmob]
5 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 23 February 2010 | | 2008 년 대한민국의 촛불 시위 | | | (U) | Wikipedia in Korean — Korean subsite of multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia; http://ko.wikipedia.org]
6 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 20 November 2009 | | 부산 청년들 ‘파’, ‘병’ 들고 깜짝 플래쉬 몹 | | | (U) | Daum Agora, ROK’s largest online bulletin board; URL: http://bbs1.agora.media.daum.net]
7 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 12 April 2010 | | 베트맨, 원더우먼, 슈퍼맨은 해산하라~ | | | (U//FOUO) | Youtube.com in Korean; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUujH7E_O_Y]
8 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 27 September 2003 | | 오후여담: 모바일 군중 | | | (U) | Seoul Munhwa Ilbo Online in Korean — Website of Munhwa Ilbo, an independent and moderate evening daily of pro-business editorial orientation; URL: http://www.munhwa.com]
9 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 4 July 2008 | | 신촌지역 광우병쇠고기 촛불집회관련 플래시몹해보아요 | | | (U) | Daum Agora, ROK’s largest online bulletin board; URL: http://bbs2.agora.media.daum.net/gaia/do/kin/read?bbsId=K150&articleId=383613]
10 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 20 July 2009 | | 개념찬 훈녀들의 미디어악법 절대반대 플래쉬몹 | | | (U//FOUO) | JuicyDream Blog in Korean; URL: http://blog.daum.net/juicydream/127]
11 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 16 February 2004 | | 정치색 띠는 ‘플래시몹’…’차떼기 추방’ 21 차례 열려 | | | (U) | Seoul JoongAng Daily Online in Korean — Website of JoongAng Ilbo, a major center-right daily; URL: http://www.joins.com]
12 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 16 February 2004 | | 정치색 치는 ‘플래시몹’…’차떼기 추방’ 21 차례 열려 | | | (U) | Seoul JoongAng Daily Online in Korean — Website of JoongAng Ilbo, a major center-right daily; URL: http://www.joins.com]
13 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 16 November 2009 | | 플래쉬몹한 20 대 두명 연행기 | | | (U//FOUO) | Ko’ro’ganu’nkkum Blog in Korean; URL: http://gonghyun.tistory.com/577]
14 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 12 April 2010 | | 베트맨, 원더우먼, 슈퍼맨은 해산하라~ | | | (U//FOUO) | Youtube.com in Korean; URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUujH7E_O_Y]
15 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 13 February 2004 | | 플래시몹, 정치를 만나다 | | | (U//FOUO) | Voiceofpeople.org]
16 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 27 September 2003 | | 오후여담: 모바일 군중 | | | (U) | Seoul Munhwa Ilbo Online in Korean — Website of Munhwa Ilbo, an independent and moderate evening daily of pro-business editorial orientation; URL: http://www.munhwa.com]
17 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 27 February 2004 | | 플래시몹 불법선거운동 논란 — 인터넷으로 시간, 장소정해…선관위 ‘속수무책’ | | | (U) | Seoul Hanguk Ilbo in Korean — Moderate independent daily; URL: http://www.hankooki.com/]
18 [Open Source (Not OSC) | | | 17 March 2004 | | 인터넷 시민운동 아직 먼길 | | | (U) | ETNews in Korean, online version of Cho’nja Sinmun, a daily servicing the electronics industry and the science and technology community in general URL: http://www.etnews.co.kr/]