Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Vol. 1: A Review

Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Volume 1: South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century

July 1, 2012

Katsiaficas starts off this work with a preface that both explains his political background and personal experiences and interest in Korea.  It annoyed me a bit, especially when he wrote “My overwhelming sense is that Korea is simultaneously the most civil society I have ever experienced and the most Americanized Asian country I have ever visited” (xxiv). But I appreciated his being upfront, and felt that it helped put his perspective into place, and as I got into the main part of the work, his personal narrative dropped off for the most part.

Also, as the developer “of the concept of the eros effect to explain the rapid spread of revolutionary aspirations and actions during the strikes of May 1968 in France and May 1970 in the United States as well as the proliferation of the global movement in this same period of time”, (xxvii) he also puts his theoretical perspectives out front, then repeatedly returns to this concept through out the book, as people’s actions back his theories.

Katsiaficas interviewed over fifty members of the Gwangju Citizen’s Army, one of the personal steps that make this such a critical historical work. As with many such works, he had to go back before the twentiety century to help create the proper historical framework for understanding the events of the century, and meticulously chronicles both the foreign intervention in Korea in general, and Western intervention in particular.  He also writes about how colonialism, then neo-liberalism was effecting other Asian nations at any given time of the book, showing an Internationalist perspective that helped make the context of the various eras clear.

Katsiaficas also makes a point of chronicling cultural changes, and tries to show their political connotations, but the core of the work, true to its subtitle “South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century” is a record of revolutionary struggle against Japanese then United States Imperialism and local collaborators, class struggle against both foreign and domestic exploitation and domination, and struggles within the working class against sexism and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

To me, stories of  the Internationalism of Koreans who fought against the Japanese in China was some of the most exciting material in the book, possibly upwards of 160,000 in the border area alone! (49)

With the end of World War II, the replacement of Japan as the colonial power dominating Korea with the United States is clearly outlined, as the northern half of Korea started to be run by People’s Committees which had sprung up all over the country, (68) and possibly 100,000 south Koreans were killed while resisting the occupation and division of the country before the start of the Korean War (60).

The overthrow of various U.S. backed military governments in 1960 and 1987, and the mass student and labor organizing while under threat of heavy prison sentences and police, military and/or vigilante violence, and the journalism during heavy censorship that was behind these struggles and the conflicts to come against neo-liberalism are all throughly documented, with plenty of sources cited for further study.

In my opinion, the only weak part is the thirteenth and final chapter of the book, “The Democratic Dilemma.” As I read its accounting of democratically elected, right-wing governments’ regressive policies and sell out liberals doing much of the same, it left me wondering how exactly it was a dilemma until just shy of the end. Katsiaficas, correctly in my opinion, points out, “The hundreds of middle and high school girls who led the first protests in Seoul [in 2008] revealed this dilemma of democracy. They embodied a ‘collective intelligence’ superior to their country’s elite” (415) though after plenty of theorizing and editorializing throughout the book, writing like a lion for the first twelve chapters closes out the book as a lamb leaving me wondering, and what? Since the future is still to be written, and he is from the States it makes sense that he would do so, and I applaud his stepping back and not asserting himself as some sort of great visionary who can direct a radical Korean future, as far too many white North Americans have been doing for far too long. It just seemed to trail off, but has been a wealth of information very worth reading and following up on.

This is an excellent radio interview with the author that inspired me to read the book HERE.

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