Last May, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was criticized in his nation’s parliament for not attending ceremonies marking the 1980 Gwangju uprising, an event considered a major turning point in the Republic of Korea’s (R.O.K.) transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The same month marked the 50th anniversary of the coup that brought strongman Park Chung-hee to power, prompting editorials reassessing both Park’s program of Korean development and industrialization, as well as the dark side of his iron rule. Now that South Korea is a vibrant democracy, how do its people remember its authoritarian past? How do its former leaders feature in current political debates? What influence has the period of authoritarianism had on the way political groups organize themselves today? How have interpretations of South Korea’s past influenced relations with neighboring countries?
According to Seungsook Moon, professor of sociology at Vassar College, many conceptualizations of the past in South Korea revolve around Park, a military strongman who ruled the country until he was assassinated by his own security chief in 1979. Images of Park have changed over time: he was criticized during the rule of his close successor, Chun Doo-hwan; the messiness of democratization in South Korea in the late 1980s and 1990s brought forth some positive nostalgia for the Park era; and economic and social confusion after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis led to a “Park Chung-hee Syndrome.” That is, Park’s memory was contested among progressives who sought to demonize him and conservatives who sometimes glorified his rule. Centrists, meanwhile, attempted to extract themselves from this debate in order to paint a picture of a human but flawed leader. According to Moon, such collective memories of Park and South Korea’s authoritarian past thus serve to delineate and unify particular groups within the nation’s political milieu.
Indeed, according to Namhee Lee, associate professor of modern Korean history at the University of California, Los Angeles, conservatives in the R.O.K. have chosen to forget the brutal actions of dictators like Park in their eagerness to create a basis for conservative political thought in the present. Such amnesia is not particular to South Korea—the desire to construct positive national identities has meant that many official and popular narratives elsewhere have glossed over darker historical events. However, in South Korea’s case, the end of the Cold War and South Korea’s economic success have served as post-hoc justifications for Park’s anti-communism, solidifying conservative amnesia about his often violent abuses of office. Conversely, in order to trumpet their own democratic credentials, progressives in democratic South Korea have emphasized their roots in uprising and resistance to authoritarianism.
Such battles over history in South Korea have led to a situation where, contrary to national contexts elsewhere, nationalism has become a preserve of progressives. Focusing particularly on historical writings, Henry Em, associate professor of East Asian studies at New York University, noted that progressives were able to focus on Korea’s colonization by Japan in order to forge a narrative that stressed the virtues of national self-reliance. They were then able to transfer that narrative to Seoul’s security dependence on Washington in order to criticize the ruling conservative regime. The fact that many of South Korea’s postwar ruling elite collaborated with the Japanese empire during colonization added particular weight to the progressive nationalist critique. Perhaps not surprisingly then, conservatives in South Korea have embraced postcolonial and postmodern interpretations of history—which stress more subjective approaches to the past are are critical of dogmatic nationalism.
The political consequences of nationalist interpretations of the past are not, however, restricted to the domestic sphere. As Alexis Dudden, professor of history at the University of Connecticut, observed, the positioning of Japan as a “foil,” useful for the development of a positive national identity, has led to particular problems in Seoul’s relations with Tokyo. In order to provide a counter to the historically laden nationalism on the left, Dudden believes that postwar authoritarian rulers stressed Seoul’s claims over Dokdo—a contested cluster of rocks between Korea and Japan—as a relatively ahistorical, and therefore permissible, symbol that could be used to pander to public nationalism. The legacy of this tactic continues to roil relations between Japan and South Korea today. Both the left and the right in South Korean politics are committed to the notion of “Dokdo as Korean land,” and even relatively pro-Japan governments in Seoul, like the current Lee administration, are bound by public opinion not to take a softer line over the issue of the rocks.
By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program