New writing: “High-Altitude Protests and Necropolitical Digits” (2020)

Han, Ju Hui Judy. “High-Altitude Protests and Necropolitical Digits.” In Digital Lives in the Global City: Contesting Infrastructures, edited by Deborah E. Cowen, Alexis Mitchell, Emily Paradis, and Brett Story, 175–78. Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia Press, 2020.

You can download a scanned PDF copy of my article from Academia.edu. I’ve also pasted below the article with corrections of a few minor typos that appear in the publication.

“Kogong’yŏjido,” a map of high-altitude occupation protests in Korea, 1990–2015. Park Eun-sun, Listen to the City.

This was one of the quickest writing I’ve done, conceived and drafted almost entirely on one night in 2015 and subsequently revised a couple more times before it was published in October 2020. It’s a short, creative piece, packed with dates and other kinds of digits that have become a key part of my research on protest cultures. I wanted to tie these numerical digits to the idea of “digital lives,” making sense of protests that persist over time and hang precariously on the verge of death.

There was some back and forth discussion with the editors and the publisher on how best to include the map, “Kogong’yŏjido” 고공여지도, a brilliant illustration of high-altitude protests produced by Park Eun-sun of Listen to the City. I wish I could have found a way to provide a more detailed discussion and translation of it, but the map’s size and dimension proved difficult to squeeze onto a page of a book. The original was a stunning full-page spread of a newspaper so what’s included in this book is not a great reproduction by any means. It’s reprinted in the book, with permission, of course.

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High-Altitude Protests and Necropolitical Digits

Ju Hui Judy Han

Dates. August 15 or 8.15, marks the day of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, and 6.25 is the name used by South Koreans to refer to the Korean War. 4.3 is the day the Jeju massacres took place, though the killings took more than just one day. 4.19 refers to the student-led uprising in 1960 that toppled the dictatorship of the First Republic, and 12.12 was the day of the military coup d’état in 1979 that created the Fifth Republic. 5.18, the day of the Kwangju uprising in 1980, marks the heart of prodemocracy movements. Korean Americans say 4.29 or saigu to talk about the LA uprising in 1992.

These numbers memorialize beginnings and ends. They are temporal abbreviations, digits encoded with meaning, historical moments compacted into acronyms. Calendar dates repeat every year. Anniversaries fasten one year to another, insisting on continued remembrance, grief that does not end. Every year, on 4.16, the Sewol ferry sinks with 304 lives aboard.

Another political cultural practice in Korea accounts for both persistence and impermanence of time and space: numerical measures of endurance. It took 1,895 days for Kiryung Electronics workers (2005–10) to win reinstatement, but they returned to work only to find an empty building; the company had relocated in secret without notifying the workers. Korea Train Express (KTX) train attendants took 4,526 days (2006-18), Jaeneung Educational Institution (JEI) workers took 2,076 days (2007–13), Korea Telecom (KT) workers took 517 days (2000–02), and the list goes on. Former “military comfort women,” women who were drafted into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army, have held a protest rally outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on every Wednesday since January 8, 1992, for a total of 1,441 weekly protests (as of May 27, 2020). It’s been over twenty-eight years and it is still ongoing.

Digits also mark the duration of high-altitude protests, sometimes known as aerial protests of hanŭl kamok 하늘 감옥 or prisons in the sky. In militant labour politics – where long, protracted fights are a mainstay – high-altitude protests simultaneously perform risky near-death precarity and a refusal to succumb. Jinsook Kim spent 309 days atop a construction crane in 2011 in protest against Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction. She chose Crane No. 85 after fellow activist Kim Ju-ik hanged himself on it on the 130th day of his occupation protest in 2003. In 2012–13, two workers lived for 296 days on a high-voltage transmission tower in Ulsan to protest against Hyundai Auto across the street. That same year in Seoul, two women, Yeo Min-hui and Oh Soo-young, protested for 202 days on top of a Catholic church bell tower to demand reinstatement and justice for private educational workers at JEI.

Usually alone but sometimes in pairs, high-altitude protesters appeal not only to the rule of law but the law of gravity and fear of death. They engage in a high-rise spatial fix to dramatize the frailty of life, not courage or strength. They wave and tweet encouraging words to family and supporters on the ground, but up in the sky, in that ghastly isolation, high-altitude protesters manage exhaustion and monotony, anxiety and creeping depression. Death is always only a small step away. They fight the constant urge to fly.

Kogong’yŏjido” is a map of high-altitude occupation protests designed by Park Eun-sun of the urbanist artist-activist collective Listen to the City. Originally published in tabloid newspaper size, the map is accompanied by a long list of the starting dates and locations of the 116 occupation protests that took place between 1990 and 2015. The map shows how tall the structures are, in metres, and the total number of days survived on these monuments to modernity, heaps of metal and concrete. For over twenty well-known cases illustrated on the map, architectural line drawings render the physicality and materiality of high-rise infrastructure that underpin high-altitude protests – construction tower cranes, suspension bridges, factory chimneys, and billboards. Protesters climb up and set up camp, spending days and nights in sweltering heat and monsoon rain, in snow and ice, separated by distance but also connected – hopefully, but not always – to support networks on the ground. For water and food, for waste disposal, and for connectivity through digital devices, comrades and families on the ground constitute a lifeline. High-altitude protesters may be perched up in the air, but they are kept alive by their connectivity to the ground, illustrating the biopower of life-sustaining solidarity stretched vertically across space.

“Kogong’yŏjido,” a map of high-altitude occupation protests in Korea, 1990–2015. Park Eun-sun, Listen to the City.

On July 9, 2015, after spending a world record-setting 408 days on a 45-metres-tall factory chimney to demand reinstatement, Cha Gwang-ho, a dismissed Star Chemical/FineTek worker, carefully climbed down to a small cheering crowd. He headed up on May 27, 2014 and came down on July 9, 2015. Immediately after a cursory health check, Cha was taken into police custody and jailed for charges of obstruction and trespassing in what was described as a seamless transition from one prison to another. Cha’s record was broken on January 11, 2019, by his coworkers, Hong Gi-tak and Pak Jun-ho, who came down after surviving 426 days atop a factory chimney seventy-five metres high, setting a new world record for high-altitude occupation protest. Weakened from 14 months of occupation and days of hunger strike, Hong and Pak took 50 minutes to descend.

Encoded in the digits of high-altitude protests are not triumphant narratives of achievement but profound protest performances against necropolitics – they are battling the constant fear of falling, fear of death, and fear of being forgotten. They demonstrate what might appear to be groundless human resilience against all odds.