South Korea has witnessed major social movements about every 20 years. In the period since liberation in 1945, the April 19 Revolution of 1960 and the 1980 Gwangju People’s Resistance significantly impacted modern Korean social movements. Alongside with rapid industrialization, Korean democratization has been touted repeatedly as the major South Korean achievement since the 1960s. From the latter half of the 20th century, Korean democratization movements continuously focused their attentions on the twin themes of national unification and class problems. Since the demise of the democratization movement, Korean social movements have faced new challenges and tended to differentiate into various areas. The successors to Korean social movements face the task of pursuing change in totally different conditions than before. A series of candlelight vigils have developed activism at a fundamentally different level so as to change the definition of social movement itself. Even as the younger generation plays the central role in raising the questions of these movements, the South Korean population composition is paradoxically aging. Most importantly, all of these issues and challenges are not limited to Korea as before, but are also closely linked to the issues facing other regions and countries, both neighboring and remote. Outlining the trajectories of the twin issues of national and class problems that post-liberation social movements have pursued, this essay focuses on underclass and women’s issues as two particularly important areas of focus that have lasting significance for the future of Korean social movements.
Some scholars have recently discussed the supposed failure of socialism in South Korea. By failure, they tend to refer to the low parliamentary representation of social-democratic parties in today’s South Korea, as well as a high degree of working-class fragmentation. I argue here that the rhetoric of failure does not do justice to the entirety of socialist experience in post-division South Korea. It is undeniable, of course, that the degree of working-class self-representational capacity was greatly affected by both hard-core Cold War anti-communist policies and the neoliberal fragmentation of wage laborers into many divergent, sometimes even mutually antagonistic, groups. However, the noteworthy revival of autochthonous socialist politics and ideology in the 1980s, as well as socialist success in entering mainstream electoral politics in the 2000s, reveals the potential of political socialism in South Korea. Moreover, I argue that socialist/Marxist influence on South Korean intellectual paradigms and debates is significantly more pronounced than research suggests. Rather than a failure, socialism in South Korea represents a continuum of struggle. Socialism did not triumph on the Korean Peninsula in the twentieth century. However, the struggle continues, and constitutes perhaps the principally important part of Korea’s modern and contemporary history.
It would be difficult to find a country where the student movement has impacted political, social, and cultural change to the extent it has in Korea. The student movement in South Korea was one of the most important drivers of Korea’s historical development. In addition, the activists produced through the student movement have advanced into various fields of society where their legacy continues to be felt to this day. The core source of ideological resources and manpower for the student movement from the 1960s to 1980s were university ideological circles or clubs called “academic societies” (hakhoe). These circles became wedges that cracked the ideological uniformity of the state. In the 1970s and early 1980s, when the state’s surveillance and control of universities were particularly severe, university student councils were dismantled and the freedom of assembly and demonstration suppressed. As a result, academic societies operated secretly and produced the ideological resources and leadership of the student movement, becoming the mechanism of organization and mobilization. However, after 1983, the organization of student councils was again permitted, and as the student movement became an open mass movement, the need for an ideological circle that secretly trained small groups of students into key activists weakened. Finally, around 1986, the academic societies were dismantled in most schools by the student leadership.
This article investigates how the 1960 April Revolution in South Korea was reflected in the contemporary West German press and the diplomatic cables to Bonn. While in general the topic of the April Revolution is well documented and well researched, how events regarding the student movement were evaluated and depicted in Germany’s media and politics has not yet been subject to academic scrutiny despite the intriguing parallels between the two countries’ geopolitical dilemma that existed during the Cold War. By analyzing historical sources such as media reports, government-issued publications, and diplomatic cables retrieved from the Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, the present article explores the following three research questions to illuminate yet another facet of the historic student movement. First, how did the German press and diplomatic corps evaluate President Rhee Syngman’s rule of South Korea? Second, how did they assess the significance of the student movement? Third, how did they explain the reasons for the uprising and project its effects?
This paper attempts to examine the invisibility of minorities during the Cold War period in the contexts of colonialism, national division, and the Cold War, rather than at an individual country level. Particularly, it delves into the forgotten history of minorities who crossed the borders of nation-states under the divided regimes of East Asia, such as stowaways, exiles, returnees, and international adoptees. Thereby, it seeks to accentuate the need for an approach to reconstructing the configuration of historicity surrounding national borders, nationality, and border-crossing in the processes of colonialism, the Cold War, and division. It draws attention to invisible minorities for an introspective contemplation of social movements in Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, transborder minorities neither shared identical historical backgrounds, nor could they be identified with forced citizens of the nation-state. The Cold War state, groups, and even social movements were implicated in the invisibility of transborder minorities between the cracks of the nation-state.
Commenting on the failure of the 1848 revolution in France, Marx famously wrote that history’s repetition comes first as tragedy and then as farce. I draw upon his lesson to reflect upon the politics of memory that have animated labor and popular protest in the afterlife of the April Student Revolution and Gwangju Uprising. “Forging” (in the title) gestures toward both creation and imitation, and “Workers of Iron” refers to the eponymous song of the labor movement and the figure of the specifically male workingclass hero. The song is still sung, but the figure appears with disbelief. Drawing upon ethnographic research on labor and other popular protests, I examine their performativity, in particular their aesthetic and affective productions, as practices of conjuring memories of heroic and violent opposition to the state. My analysis shows, however, that these practices are not motivated by belief or ideological commitment; rather, it is cynicism, doing while knowing that there is no belief. This “farce” suggests changes in working-class politics and subjectivities in post-authoritarian, neoliberal South Korea, revealing an emergent politics of precarity that anticipates the forms of sociality and performance that surfaced during the candlelight vigils in 2006, 2008, and 2016.
This paper traces the shifting modes of candlelight demonstrations in South Korea between 2002 and 2019. Operating in a new media environment, the candlelight protests involved the masses as a flow. The three mass movements that succeeded one another in 2002 exhibited qualities that were quite different from one another (politics, play, and struggle). In the protests of 2008, expressive traits, which appear as elements of play along with struggle against the government, became generalized, taking precedence over representation. In the protests of 2016–2017, the masses persisted in attacking the one and only target—the incompetent and corrupt Park Geun-hye. While the media kept in step with the masses in the candlelight demonstrations of 2016–2017, the candlelight demonstrations of 2019 were held in opposition to and direct confrontation with the media. They also faced simultaneous demonstrations from the opposing side. These differences show that the sui generis style of the candlelight demonstrations can be regarded as a repeatable form, one that can be repurposed to suit different conditions, and which can adopt various genres. They also call attention to the importance of discerning the differences that appear in the recurring candlelight demonstrations.
This essay explores South Korean cinema in the context of the recent resurgence of democratic activism that crystalized in the 2016–2017 Candlelight Movement. Among the recent films that render ordinary people’s experience of the authoritarian era, the successful 2017 feature 1987: When the Day Comes provides a rigorous historical representation of the June uprising. Despite its unprecedented depiction of one of the milestones of democratization, the film glorifies the homogeneous action of the people against state power while presenting the past as completely detached from the present. The film’s limitations are brought into relief when it is juxtaposed with other films, such as The Six-Day Fight in Myeongdong Cathedral (1997) and Yongsan (2010), that offer alternative representations of the historic event. By tracing 1987’s impulse to restore the past in a particular fashion and its implications for the context of re-democratization, this paper claims that mainstream films like 1987: When the Day Comes tend to shut down the civic imagination in the service of an unending struggle toward justice and equality in post-authoritarian society.
This article rethinks the significance of the modern detective fiction genre in Korean literary history by focusing on Yi Haejo’s (1869–1927) Ssangokjeok (Double Jade Flutes). Ssangokjeok (1908) has been appreciated as the first self-conscious detective story in Korean literary history. However, it is contradictorily viewed as a mediocre adaptation of Western detective fiction or as a transitional text between traditional crime fiction and the fully developed modern detective story. This view tends to dismiss the ideological ambiguity or cultural complexity exhibited in the novel as a narrative defect, eventually making the novel a flawed detective story. However, in reconsidering the broader cultural context of reading and writing Korean detective fiction beyond the boundaries of the genre itself, the novel captures our attention by helping us draw a more complex picture of modern Korean literature and rethink the Korean literary modern. From this perspective, we should understand the novel as a complex text reflecting the conflicting relationships between traditional culture and modern civilization. In particular, this aspect appears conspicuous in the portrayal of the novel’s detective figure. Unlike modern detective heroes such as Sherlock Holmes, Detective Jeong devotes himself to fulfilling the function of modern enlightenment and social criticism rather than following the rules of popular fantasy for science and modern rationality. In this way, the novel suggests we must rethink the significance of fiction subgenres in Korean literary history.
This study examines Korean independent women’s magazines through the lens of subculture to understand how women of the digital-media generations are disseminating ideas through printed magazines. It reveals how Korean women in their 20s and 30s, who have often been excluded from the traditional publishing world, are able to find influence and community through independent magazines. This study also considers the history of the rise of independent women’s magazines in Korea and how these magazines differ from commercial magazines for women, as well as past magazines for feminists. The rise of independent women’s magazines also reflects changes in the outlook of young collegeeducated women, and how they are now claiming their space in a patriarchal society. The subculture dealt with in this study is not the heroic type of protest popular in the mid-20th century; rather, it is closer to the ambiguous, complex type of protest widespread in post-modern societies. Indie (independent) magazines for women function as a field of subculture that strengthens the sense of community among women in their 20s and 30s and helps confirm their self-identity.
This paper studies how the image of Mun Ye-bong as a traditional docile Korean woman is taken advantage of by early North Korean propaganda films following her migration to North Korea in 1948. Focusing on A Partisan Maiden, aka A Partisan Woman (Ppalchisan cheonyeo, 1954), among her early North Korean pictures, this study examines how Mun’s image is appropriated in the propaganda films of both colonized Korea and North Korea immediately after decolonization in 1945. A Partisan Maiden is highly notable in Mun’s filmography, for the film features her not only as the main character, a departure from her regular and minor appearances as daughter, fiancée, wife, and mother of male heroes, but also as a communist guerilla fighter against US troops during the Korean War. The film’s warrior-protagonist role metamorphoses Mun from a “sweetheart of thirty millions”(samcheonman-ui yeonin), a colonial-period epithet of her, to a “people’s actress” (inmin baeu) in North Korea. However, I will argue that this metamorphosis is conflated with Mun’s image of the traditional Korean mother, who faces mythical, figurative death in the nation-birth.
This article provides a detailed analysis of the screen painting, King Jeongjo’s Visit to Hwaseong, elucidating how King Jeongjo strategically used the screen’s aesthetics, production, and distribution to promote his political agenda. To emphasize the king’s intended meaning, the article divides the screen into two halves: panels 1–4, which feature traditional two-dimensional depictions of events, and panels 5–8, which employ less conventional viewpoints, including a bird’s-eye view and one-point perspective. These different perspectives directly reflect the intended themes of the respective panels: the Confucian concept of rulership (panels 1–4), and the art of innovative governance (panels 5–8). To highlight the political motivations involved in the production and distribution of the screen, the article outlines the specific process for painting the screen—from the king’s instructions to the artists’ execution—and describes the intended viewers and their reactions. In addition to the screen, the article also examines related visual materials that were produced and distributed within the same context.