South Korea’s path to democracy was long and arduous; as historian Bruce Cumings concluded, there “may be no country more deserving of democracy in our time than the Republic of Korea”. While many initially assumed Korea would transition towards a liberal democratic system following the end of Japanese colonialism, decades of authoritarianism and dictatorship ensued. Despite being founded as such in 1947, it is only four decades later that South Korea became a democracy in practice with the election of President Roh in December 1987.
While the 1980s was the decade that saw democracy eventually triumph, the role played by pro-democracy movements in the 1970s has all too often been forgotten. Despite General Park Chung-hee iron fist rule, several social movements and constituencies – students, liberal church groups, unions, lawyers and journalists – structured and organized themselves during those years, paving the way for the major successes of the following decade.
This is the core argument of Protest Dialectics: State Repression and South Korea’s Democracy Movement (Stanford University Press, 2015), written by Professor Paul Y. Chang, who kindly agreed to be our guest for this episode.
Professor Chang is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. He received his PhD in Sociology from Stanford University in 2008. He taught at Yonsei and Singapore Management University before joining the Harvard faculty in 2013, currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Korea Institute at Harvard University and is affiliated with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Harvard Asia Center’s Council on Asian Studies. Professor Chang has published several book chapters and articles in various academic journals, including Mobilization, Sociological Forum, Asian Perspectives and the Journal of Korean Studies.
A lot of the groups that were active in the 1980s — for example labor groups […], and Christians, and journalists and human rights lawyers, if you trace back when these social groups became politicized it was actually in the 1970s. And so I’m not saying that they were significant in numbers or even significant in impact but this is the beginnings, the origins of the politicization of distinct and important sectors of Korean society, and then in the 1980s all of that comes to fruition with the large democracy movement.
The interview was conducted on July 8th in Seoul.