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Youngju Ryu

Interview by undergraduate student Vivian Li (2021). Major: Political Science and English.

Youngju Ryu, 2018-19 Hunting Family Faculty Fellow, Associate Professor of Modern Korean Literature
Protest Sculptures In Front Of Admiral Yi (191879599).jpeg. (2018, September 1). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.


Can you tell us a little more about the project you’re working on this year?

It’s a project called “How a Podcast Started a Revolution: South Korea’s Protest Culture, 1987-2017.” Recently, South Korea has been in the headlines because of the impeachment of the sitting president, Park Geun-Hye. It started with a peaceful protest on the streets that was almost becoming a political carnival. Such set of development actually have a long history traced back to the democratization of South Korea, which was initially accompanied with violence. However, this set of protests were different in that they were remarkably without violence.

I’m looking at the role of media, specifically new forms of media, that enabled new strategies for movement that caused these collective incidents (peaceful protest) to emerge, within a historical terrain that is overdetermined and has a rich memory of political protests.

Why did you choose this particular topic? Why does it interest you?

My earlier work was on literature of a privileged medium of political resistance, in the 1970s in South Korea against the authoritarian military dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee, former President Park’s father. While still interested in that question, I now think that literature has lost its privileged space and is no longer playing the same role as in the 1970s. Such kind of role has shifted to other kinds of media. So I’m specifically interested in the podcast form, which now plays that role. Key functions in literature, such as satire, or keeping a message alive and spreadable, are taken up by podcast as transforming words into social forces. In short, I’m looking at words as a form of collective political subjectification in podcast instead of literature.

What have you discovered in your research? What are some of the key takeaways?

What I’m trying to do in this year is to examine how one particular podcast started a revolution. This podcast, launched in 2011, failed its immediate goal of combating Park’s candidacy in 2012. But many years later in 2017, its landscape in news reporting and the movement it started helped to bring about the impeachment, or the Candle Light Revolution as named by South Koreans. Another pivotal part of this research is sorting out the sequence of events and constructing a timeline.

It’s too early to tell the takeaways. What I would like to get to by the end of this fellowship year is to articulate how direct participatory democracy works in South Korea, especially in an era of cyber connectivity and social media. By drawing attention to this South Korea case, I intend it to be a cutting-edge of these developments, which provides the opportunity to explore the intercept of media, technology and politics on a smaller scale. This is harder to track in a larger country such as the United States.

How does being in this environment with other fellows drive your project? What is one thing you’ve learned from other fellows?

The time here is great. I’m in the Asian field, a multidisciplinary department where disciplinary conversations are not that frequent. Similarly in the Institute, I am feeling the complexity and richness of other fellows’ research being done. Whether or not other fellows’ topics are related to mine, I’m enjoying all the intellectual inquiries, the seriousness and the sincerity these questions that are being pursued. Overall, this atmosphere is stimulating and inspiring.

What is one choice you’re glad you made during your undergrad?

As an English major, I wrote a senior honors thesis about Henry James (yes I was very close to not writing it). That experience is really helpful for me to identity to myself that I intend to pursue graduate school. It influenced my career path.

What advice would you give to undergraduates?

I would encourage all LSA students to take a foreign language and go all the way with it. Take some classes after finishing the language requirement!

Why do you think undergrads should study the humanities?

There is so much value in taking the time to think about questions that do not have immediate utilitarian payoffs. There are certain things in life that need to be contemplated to be realized. Humanities are fundamentally interested into these questions. If one rushes to generate a use value right away, such as cash, they become easily expended. Humanities require a different kind of pacing, a different relationship with environment and to others. It is an empathetic endeavor. It’s important to bear these old-fashioned reasons in mind, spending some time learning these subjects with no immediate rewards