The Making of Minjung

The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 368
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Making of Minjung
    Book Description:

    In this sweeping intellectual and cultural history of the minjung ("common people's") movement in South Korea, Namhee Lee shows how the movement arose in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the repressive authoritarian regime and grew out of a widespread sense that the nation's "failed history" left Korean identity profoundly incomplete.

    The Making of Minjung captures the movement in its many dimensions, presenting its intellectual trajectory as a discourse and its impact as a political movement, as well as raising questions about how intellectuals represented the minjung. Lee's portrait is based on a wide range of sources: underground pamphlets, diaries, court documents, contemporary newspaper reports, and interviews with participants. Thousands of students and intellectuals left universities during this period and became factory workers, forging an intellectual-labor alliance perhaps unique in world history. At the same time, minjung cultural activists reinvigorated traditional folk theater, created a new "minjung literature," and influenced religious practices and academic disciplines.

    In its transformative scope, the minjung phenomenon is comparable to better-known contemporaneous movements in South Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Understanding the minjung movement is essential to understanding South Korea's recent resistance to U.S. influence. Along with its well-known economic transformation, South Korea has also had a profound social and political transformation. The minjung movement drove this transformation, and this book tells its story comprehensively and critically.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6169-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Namhee Lee
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Minjung, History, and Historical Subjectivity
    (pp. 1-20)

    This book is about intellectuals and university students who participated in the South Korean democratization movement, known also as the minjung movement. I refer to them as either minjung practitioners or undongkwŏn (which I explain later in this chapter). This book explores how they articulated, contested, and practiced the notion of minjung, “common people,” from the 1970s to the 1980s. During this period, the minjung movement was prominent in South Korean politics and social life, and by the late 1980s it became the driving force for the country’s transition from an authoritarian military regime to a parliamentary democracy. The South...

  6. Part I. The Crisis of Historical Subjectivity

      (pp. 23-69)

      “Only minjung is completely nationalistic, and only minjung is completely democratic. This is my conclusion upon reflecting on modern Korean history, which has gone through trial and error in search for subjectivity [of historical development].”¹ Thus declared Kim Minsŏk, a student leader at Seoul National University in 1985. Sentenced to a fiveyear prison term for his involvement in Sammint’u (Committee of the Three Min Struggle),² Kim titled his statement of appeal “Minjung, minjok, minju” (People, nation, democracy).

      Kim further urged that a history that has gone astray must be “rectified” at the right time. Koreans had missed opportunities to “reanchor”...

      (pp. 70-108)

      In 1982, Mun Pusik was sentenced to death for his role in planning the arson of the U.S. Information Service (USIS) building in Busan to protest U.S. involvement in the suppression of the Gwangju Uprising. He accepted the sentence without complaint but demanded that he be cleared of the charge of being a communist:

      That I am procommunist [yonggong] and impure [pulsun], that I am a leftist [chwagyŏng] is all made up by the political powers. I am a communist only to the extent that the state has designated me as such. If only I could be cleared of the...

      (pp. 109-144)

      At the end of the 1980s, the well-known literary critic Kim Pyongik marveled at the intellectual and cognitive journey that he and the country collectively had taken in the 1980s:

      In the last ten years, I have been able to read and utter the name of Marx, which had been taboo in our history. I have read the travelogue [by fellow Koreans] to North Korea, and I myself have been to the Soviet Union, neither of which I dreamt would be possible in my lifetime. I have heard criticisms of the United States, previously unimaginable, with which I find myself...

  7. Part II. Building a Counterpublic Sphere

      (pp. 147-186)

      As I discuss in the Introduction, one of the paradigmatic terms capturing the multiple aspirations and conflicting practices of the 1980s minjung movement was undongkwŏn. Denoting either an individual activist or the minjung movement as a whole, it was frequently invoked inside and outside movement circles, signaling that Korean society at large implicitly recognized the minjung movement as a significant force, whether or not one agreed with it. The term was often used outside the minjung movement to indicate disapproval; the state used it to emphasize its undesirability, equating the undongkwŏn with antistate and pro-communist elements. Individual activists rarely used...

    • 5. BETWEEN INDETERMINACY AND RADICAL CRITIQUE: Madanggŭk, Ritual, and Protest
      (pp. 187-212)

      The French Revolution is sometimes said to have started with the opening night of Pierre Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro; audience cheers for the servant Figaro who stood up to and outwitted his depraved and lewd master, the count, signaled the crumbling of the existing social and moral order.¹ Throughout the 1970s and 1980s in South Korea, many rehearsals for the minjung revolution were carried out as madanggŭk, a drama form that synthesized and amalgamated Korean traditional folk drama with elements of Western drama. Characterized by stereotyped characters, chain-like connections between scenes, hard-hitting satire and caricature, comical gestures and dialogues, jokes,...

      (pp. 213-240)

      On July 6, 1986, the Chosǒn Ilbo (Korea Daily) carried a one-sentence item at the bottom of its social page: A twenty-three-year-old woman student from Seoul National University named Kwǒn had sued a detective of the Puch’ǒn police, charging him with sexual torture during her recent detention.¹ This small news item was to rock Korean society for months. It was shocking that a young woman would go public with an accusation that was more likely to damage her own reputation than that of the accused.² Furthermore, she had voluntarily quit a prestigious university to work in a factory.

      While the...

  8. Part III. The Politics of Representation

    • 7. “TO BE REBORN AS REVOLUTIONARY WORKERS”: Gramscian Fusion and Leninist Vanguardism
      (pp. 243-268)

      The intellectuals shifted their social identity in the 1980s in an effort to break down the societal division between themselves and workers, rather than lead in the manner of a Leninist vanguard. This identity shift was an attempt for the most “transparent” representation possible, a mode of representation unmediated by any effects of representation, as it were. Yet the underlying logic of this representation relied on, and became a subtle means of confirming, the existing social division between the intellectual and the worker: the intellectual as socially conscious and ethical, and the worker as the recipient of this act of...

    • 8. THE SUBJECT AS THE SUBJECTED: Intellectuals and Workers in Labor Literature
      (pp. 269-293)

      This chapter explores the literary representation of intellectuals and workers in short stories and novels known variously as labor literature (nodong munhak), class literature (kyegŭp munhak), or novels of labor (nodong sosŏl),¹ published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many authors of this literature were undongkwŏn intellectuals who had become factory workers,² and much of their work was motivated by their own factory experiences and the urgency of current sociopolitical circumstances. They chose realism, both in terms of their subject matter and their narrative structure, and they conceived of their work as an extension of labor activism and viewed...

  9. CONCLUSION: The Minjung Movement as History
    (pp. 294-304)

    Lasting over three decades under ruthless suppression by the state, the minjung movement produced many martyrs and heroes who gave the movement its moral authority vis-à-vis society and the government. The minjung program’s rhetorical power and political efficacy also lay in the narrative of dichotomies, such as authoritarianism versus democracy, dominance versus resistance, enemy versus friend, and the competitiveness of capitalism versus the cooperation of the minjung. Indeed, an indomitable spirit and selfless devotion were the great aspiring ethos of the minjung movement. Despite harsh repression, the pro-democracy protest continued throughout the period. Many gave up their lives and many...

    (pp. 305-338)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 339-350)