South Korea’s Ac­tivist Roots

Global Asia - - BOOK REVIEWS - Re­viewed by John Nils­son-wright

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)

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