Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Vol. 1 in the Journal of Asian Studies

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

By Sun Chul-Kim
The Journal of Asian Studies
Volume 72 / Issues 03 / August 2013 pp733-734

Designed as the first of a two-volume serial on “Asia’s unknown uprisings,” South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century is an ambitious attempt at chronicling the long history of popular struggle in South Korea, as well as revealing the universal logic behind it. From the Tonghak Farmers’ War of 1894 to the Candlelight Protests in 2008, the book covers a broad range of popular mobilization in Korea across more than a century’s span. The book is organized into thirteen chapters in chronological order, with eight chapters devoted to the popular struggles of the last three decades. In chapters 6–10, the book offers one of the most thorough accounts of the contentious 1980s, which erupted with the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and culminated with the June Uprising and the Great Workers’ Struggle of 1987. Aided by insider accounts, these chap- ters offer a rich narrative of the unfolding events with rare insight into the inner dynamics and the emotional responses that characterize rare moments of insurgency. It is unclear, however, why there is only one short chapter tracing political challenges in the 1960s and ‘70s, whereas three chapters are dedicated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the opening chapter, the book lays out its central argument, that “ordinary people, acting together in the best interests of the group, embody a reasonability and intelligence far greater than any of today’s corporate or political elites” (p. 9). To George Katsiaficas, ordinary people assume not only superior morality, but also superiority in self- organization and self-discipline inherent in the everyday relations in civil society. Conse- quently, ordinary people, or civil society, are endowed with the wisdom, intuition, and capacity for effecting change and building a true participatory democracy, the manifes- tations of which are the numerous uprisings and social movements. Having set the premise this way, the book moves on to concomitant argument that concerns the role of spontaneity in collective action. “The outcome of spontaneous and massive occur- rences is often far better than deliberately planned ones” (p. 144), Katsiaficas argues, and throughout the chapters there is no shortage of reference to the “autonomous,” “lea- derless” protesters who have shown their capacity to act and govern “without the ‘help’ of political vanguards and almighty leaders” (p. 4). Exemplified by the voluntary partici- pation of Gwangju citizens and the sense of community they built during the nine-day uprising, it is argued that the power of spontaneity constitutes a critical mechanism behind the large-scale mobilizations of the 1960 April Revolution, the 1987 June Upris- ing, and the 2008 Candlelight Protests.

The book is largely successful in highlighting the role of “ordinary people” as the engine of change, and the picture of spontaneous participation and community building during high tides of protest is convincing. However, the depiction of ordinary people as a self-motivated, self-contained, and self-propelling protagonist raises several questions as to exactly who they are, why they act, and to what extent the various participants in the numerous uprisings can be lumped into a single category. While many scholars have looked to the grassroots or civil society as the main engine of change in South Korea’s transition to electoral democracy, civil society can turn into a cumbersome concept when investigating social movements in the post-authoritarian context. This is partly because democratization brings many changes, including internal differentiation of civil society, such that it becomes impossible to talk about civil society as if it were a monolithic actor. However, the book presses on with its framework, and finds itself in an odd situation where it is argued that “popular movements surged ahead in the years following [democratic transition in] 1987” (p. 313) at the same time the rise of NGOs, and professionalization and specialization of the citizens’ movement, “led to the move- ment’s overall decline” (p. 6). It seems what is needed is a refined framework that can help us recognize the various social groups and identities within civil society, as well as the varying patterns of interaction among them. Despite its theoretical import, the book’s spotlight on spontaneity similarly suffers from a simple framework. On several occasions the book implies that not all uprisings involve the same level of spontaneity (p. 243) or generate the same kind of positive energy (pp. 348–49). However, this comes without proper explanation as to why such variation may occur. At times, leader- ship, or organization, is directly pit against spontaneity, as if the two were mired in a zero-sum relationship. But does leadership necessarily undermine spontaneity? Are there not more reasons to believe that a good leadership is one that is adept at improvisa- tion or facilitating spontaneous participation?

Again, the reader is left with the impression that clarifying the relationship between spontaneity and leadership would have greatly strengthened the theoretical persuasion.

Overall, the book does a better job in narrating the political history of modern South Korea from a bottom-up perspective than it does in analyzing social movements. Plenty of space is assigned to exposing the role of the United States and the U.S.-led global political economy as an important backdrop to South Korean politics. In chapter 7, for example, the book contends that the U.S. involvement in the suppression of Gwangju, as “part of [the] global implementation of U.S. economic policy” (p. 225), “marked the bloody beginning of the imposition of a neoliberal regime onto Korea” (p. 226). This will no doubt be a point of interest to many. There are some questionable moments though, as when the author traces the origins of Hallyu “in the minjung movements of the 1980s” (p. 21) without substantiation.

Nonetheless, many readers will find that the rich details of the 1980s offset the weaknesses.

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