South Korea’s Activist Roots
Kim’s account is a compelling analysis of the limits of ‘social management’ by the state.
South Korea’s democratic transition from the 1980s is a familiar story. Less well known is the experience of April 19, 1960, when students and university professors helped drive an anti-corruption movement that pushed President Syngman Rhee to resign, ushering in a brief democratic interregnum before Park Chung-hee’s relatively bloodless coup in 1961.
Charles Kim’s cultural history of 1953 to the mid-1960s charts the ideological dimensions of liberal nationalist nation-building in post-war Korea through a close study of intellectual discourse, state-sanctioned political initiatives and public media, including books, newspapers, periodicals and film. He highlights leaders’ efforts to develop two broad ideological “schema” of “wholesome modernization” and the “student vanguard” — to promote a post-colonial narrative of economic development and gendered politics to bolster state-led rapid modernization. In the process, the fostering of student activism helped mobilize a core group in South Korea’s emerging civil society that could challenge Park’s increasingly authoritarian politics, paving the way to the more militant resistance of the later post-war period.
Kim’s account is a compelling analysis of the limits of “social management” by the state and a reminder of the transformative impact of identity politics in opening up space for democratic change.
Youth for Nation: Culture and Protest in Cold War South Korea
By Charles R. Kim Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017, 304 pages, $60 (Hardcover)