Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State

By Charles K. Armstrong | Go to book overview

1


Civil society in West and East

Bruce Cumings

Thinking about the differences between Korea and the United States is an inevitable career byproduct for Americans who study Korea or Koreans who study America, because they are, or they become, people who have a foot in both cultures. Such scholars also change, and they become people with both feet planted firmly in neither culture, that is, feet planted nowhere, or in an indefinable space existing between the two countries. But what is always so striking to such a person is the contrast between his or her daily life, where thoughts and images of Korea and America mingle profusely, and the stark contrast exemplified by the two peoples: Americans and Koreans were joined together as allies and friends since 1945, but they rarely think about each other (although this generalization is more true of the American people, who know little about Korea), and even more rarely do they actively compare each other on the same plane. In a recent book I tried to understand the complexity of perception that results from these juxtapositions, using metaphors of vision: clear, blurred, and double vision, and also the complex vantage point afforded to a person who is poised between two cultures, reflecting critically on both of them. 1

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Western communism, a ubiquitous trope has emerged in American scholarship on the meaning of these critical events: civil society, as in the title of this book. This term, which was central to an older political sociology but had fallen into disuse, reappeared in two contexts: (1) what the former communist countries needed most was what the communists had respected least, namely civil society; and (2) what Americans needed was to repair and restore their own civil society. Meanwhile, in the Republic of Korea a strong civil society emerged for the first time in the 1980s and 1990s, as a product and also a gift of the extraordinary turmoil of Korea's modern history. And few if any Americans noticed. It is this theme that I wish to dwell on, primarily from an abstract or theoretical perspective. 2

For much of the past decade the American political spectrum from right to left was suffused with an assortment of concerns about American civil society. Most commentators pointed to the same symptoms: the pathologies and dangers of cities and (remarkably) the suburbs where the majority of

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