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Out of the Frying Pan, Into Democracy

Dhruba Basu discusses the history of South Korea’s democracy movement, based on the presentations by a former Korean Human Rights Ambassador at Large and the Professor of Peace Studies at SungKongHoe University at the Asia Youth Leadership Forum for Democracy (AYLDF) held in May 2017.

The history of Korea is for a large part of its recorded history defined by the political influence of Chinese and Mongol ruling dynasties and colonial rule under Japan for 35 years (1910-1945). Its independence in 1945 was followed almost immediately by the war that devastated the peninsula and ended up dividing it into the two hostile states that we know today.

The story of South Korea’s experience of independence is one that makes today’s images of a prosperous, hyper-consumerist society seem like impossible fiction, with autocratic rule being the norm rather than exception until 1987. South Korea was in fact one of the poorest countries in Asia in the 1950s. The origins of its remarkable growth story coincide with the beginning of military dictatorship in 1961, but it is in reality anything but a coincidence: huge aid from the United States of America fuelled a 12% growth rate for two decades, in return for South Korea’s support for and participation in the Vietnam War. Not only does this capture the all-important link between military readiness and economic development in the country’s history, it also contains the seeds of patriarchal sensibilities that have not been displaced to date. In those years, South Korea played host to 100 American military bases and 50,000 American soldiers, creating foolproof conditions for the proliferation of brothels. The sex trade earned South Korea more money from American soldiers than Samsung, its largest corporation, has in all its years of business.

What makes this story especially relevant to the ‘youth and democracy’ discourse, however, is the indispensable role that students had in opposing successive dictatorships in the period between 1961 and 1987, drawing on a legacy that stretches back to the March 1st Movement of 1919 that called for an end to Japanese colonialism. This was followed a decade later by the anti-colonial Gwangju student movement of 1929-30, which spread nationwide. The student revolts of 1960 resulted in the formation of the first democratic government in the country, but it fell to a military coup that same year.

The 1970s saw anti-government sentiment and dissidence grow in universities, culminating in the Gwangju Uprising, or the May 18 Democracy Uprising of 1980. Protesters from a local university were fired at and killed in an unprecedented attack by the army, prompting the citizens of Gwangju to take up arms against the troops. The uprising lasted 10 days and ended in defeat on May 27, but the massacre revolutionised the youth and citizenry of South Korea in a way few other events could have. University students recognised the need to organise and mobilise the working classes, who were the most oppressed under the military regime; in order to do so, they infiltrated factories under false identities to pass off as workers. The professor from SungKongHoe University had himself been a student leader during this period, a member of the generation that fought against life-threatening odds and found inventive methods of keeping the struggle alive in spite of the limits placed on them by the Korean military-political leadership.

The ‘386 generation’, as the generation that went to university in the 1980s came to be known, was a generation with ideals, inventiveness and determination. But student activism and dissidence had never been absent from Korean history; what made this generation different? The answer probably lies in the truism that when state violence is practised in an arbitrary and flagrant manner relative to the historical experiences of a particular society, it bolsters the tendency towards revolutionary action within that society.

Another feature to reflect on is the manifestation of this tendency in South Korea of the 1980s: it was no more simply a protest against the immediate enemy, but a cohesive ideological movement driven by a sustained burst of counter-hegemonic critical scholarship and journalism. It was this criticality that led to a consciousness of the role played by foreign powers (especially the USA) in propping up the Korean dictatorship and the need to ensure that the movement brought the working classes and peasantry of Korea under its purview. The function of education and criticality in enriching the democratic discourse is a lesson that many ‘democratic’ societies would do well to keep in mind.

At the Korean Democracy Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2001 to preserve the memory of the democracy movement, honour those who were part of the struggle and promote the appreciation of the achievement in South Korea, Hyungsik Shin, Director of the Foundation offers insights about the role of the Church and the youth in the movement. The Foundation maintains archives where approximately 800,000 documents pertaining to the democracy movement are preserved. The respect and value South Korea attaches to its political transition is something that astounds repeatedly.

The Korean Church played a central role in opposing the authoritarian state, nurturing social movements and sheltering ‘rebels’. A combination of factors put the Church in this position, the essence of which is:

1. The Korean state was militarily and economically dependent on the American government, and Korean churches had deep ties with American churches;
2. American churches, of course, wield sizeable influence in the American legislature and executive, as well as at an international level;
3. The Korean church thus secured a high degree of autonomy from the Korean government. Repression by the Korean state was reported to American churches and international Christian organisations, which mounted pressure, through appeals to the American government and the United Nations, on the Korean government to cease and desist or face sanctions that would scupper its capacities and functioning;
4. The Korean government could be forced to back down.

Although religions have throughout history developed in close relationship with politics, the liberal values that we have come over time to associate with democracy are fundamentally premised on a separation between the spheres of God and the State. It is intriguing, therefore, to learn of a modern struggle for democracy in which the Church led from the front. For many of us who have long since grown weary of the real-world impacts of organised religion, this is pleasant proof of its potential to contribute to a progressive variety of change.

Inevitably, though, the pre-eminence of religiosity in South Korea also anchors its society’s largely conservative leanings. This conservatism takes various forms, entrenched patriarchy and virulent racism being the more prominent ones, and also, we are told, a heavily seniority-based culture that sees its youth as unworthy of being taken seriously. The irony in this cannot be ignored, given that the country’s struggle for democracy was sustained by its youth. Mr Shin proposes the explanation that the leadership and visibility of the youth grew out of a situation in which Korean society had to unite against one enemy (the military dictatorship). The displacement of this enemy and the process of democratising South Korea during the 1990s diluted the radical energy of the previous two decades’ student movements and left a vacuum that was quickly taken up by conservative attitudes that had never in fact disappeared. This brings to light a common concern about the legacy that mass movements leave behind. (read: How to Make or Break a Democracy).

There are many institutions and individuals that uphold the values of the relatively recent democracy that Koreans fought hard for. The People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) is one of them. PSPD closely monitors the Korean government and bureaucracy to promote transparency and accountability. It is heartening that organisations like PSPD are in fact quite influential at a policy level and that many activists, scholars and lawyers associated with PSPD have gone on to become politicians. The new President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, is a former human rights activist. It serves to drive home the point that a relationship between civil society and politics is possible in a compact, well-ordered society.


Read all three blog posts:

Part 1: How to Make or Break a Democracy
Part 2: Out of the Frying Pan, Into Democracy
Part 3: Champions of Democracy



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