Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State

By Charles K. Armstrong | Go to book overview

6


The South Korean student movement

Undongkwŏn as a counterpublic sphere

Namhee Lee

The Historical Emergence of Undongkwŏn

In the late 1980s, the South Korean student movement was considered one of the most important political actors in Korean society, second only to the military. In 1986, a government official privately remarked that South Korea seemed to be “at the brink of choosing either a military republic or a student republic.” 1 Leaders of national student organizations such as the National Students' Alliance (Chŏnhangnyŏn, organized in 1985) and the National University Students' Committee (Chŏndaehyŏp, organized in 1987) were portrayed as “heroes” and as “the year's most important persons” by the mass media. 2 Without the persistence and sacrifice of the students, South Korea would not have achieved the level of democracy nor seen the rise of civil society that occurred in the 1990s. 3

Students were widely recognized by the South Korean public as “a force of conscience” (yangsim seryŏk); much like former East European dissidents, they were “morally superior” because they spoke what was in everybody's mind, without considering the consequences. 4 In the 1970s, when the draconian Yushin measures of Park Chung Hee kept everyone silent, students dared to speak. In the 1980s, the Kwangju Uprising interjected a revolutionary fervor in the social movement at large in South Korea. The post-Kwangju social movement was to be “revolutionary” and “minjung-oriented, ” as opposed to being merely anti-government. The student movement was at the forefront of this new movement, providing theoretical articulation, intellectual vigor, organizational strength, and physical force. It was also through their great sacrifice that the students profoundly changed the landscape of social activism; many lost their lives, many more were expelled or voluntarily quit school, and an unprecedented number of students changed their life-course to become factory workers. 5

Claiming themselves to be a voice of conscience and the true representative of the minjung (common people), the students “presented the issues” to society. All of the major political, social, economic, and cultural issues confronting Korean society, from the regime's political legitimacy, questions of distributive justice, the truth of the Kwangju Uprising, to reunification,

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