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  • The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea
  • Jungmin Seo (bio)
The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea, by Namhee Lee. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007. xii, 349 pp. $39.95 cloth.

This book is the best, and virtually the only, political ethnography of South Korean antigovernment political activism by students and intellectuals during the 1980s turbulent democratization periods. While a few works have been published regarding the political democratization processes in South Korea recently, they fail to achieve the accuracy and indepth description that Namhee Lee has provided through this meticulous survey of real life experiences of South Korean activists in the 1980s. In particular, she laudably captured the dynamics of the politics of representation around the controversial concept of minjung, which has been frequently ignored as a nonscientific concept by social scientists or awkwardly mythified as an unquestionable historical entity by Korean progressive thinkers. The energy of Korean democratization in the 1980s, as the book well describes, stems from the finding and awakening of the collectivity, minjung, rather than from the emancipation of individuals as classical liberal democratic thinkers would envision. At the same time, minjung was constructed in very specific historical and social conditions during the late period of Korean authoritarian regimes—a time when class politics were impractical or impossible. Hence, understanding Korean democratization and its core impetus, the birth of minjung, demands [End Page 200] careful analyses of the construction of new political subjectivity, emergence of a new social sphere, and the innovative politics of representation that this book wonderfully covers.

The first part, “The Crisis of Historical Subjectivity,” deals with very complex processes of dehegemonization of Cold-War political subjectivity and the emergence of minjung narratives in the 1980s. Followed by a series of antiregime struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, Korean students and intellectuals began to embrace the narrative of failure—which was also advanced by the authoritarian regime itself to justify military coup and lack of democracy (p. 37)—of their own. Whereas the ruler’s sense of historical failure was rooted in the delayed modernization of Korea as an organic polity, dissidents in the era of the Yushin dictatorship and the turmoil of the Kwangju Massacre (1980) saw the absence of national agency in modern Korean history as the source of failed history. Thus, the rectification of history starts with the construction of minjung history that negates imperialism and its domestic collaborators altogether (p. 40). This critical process allowed the 1980s Korean intellectual activists to overcome the anticommunist paranoia (p. 106) and to initiate bold anti-Americanism, and, for some, embrace heroic narratives of Chuch’e ideology in North Korea (p. 134).

New consciousness is a prerequisite for the formation of a new social space. The newly available notion of minjung served as the driving force to create a counter-public sphere, the so-called undongkwon, which is thoroughly described in the second part of the book. The activist groups in the 1980s were able to create a rich social texture woven by numerous practices, rituals, and theatrical performances that produced a unique counter-official social sphere. On college campuses, student activists were organized through a nexus of senior and junior ties (p. 160) and reading groups (p. 165). The newly emerging space was expressed through independent informative channels—wall newspapers (p. 180) and theatrical performances–mask-dance dramas (p. 198). This unique social space was extended to the working class through various semiclandestine activities, such as night schools for workers (p. 228).

The final section of the book, though less complete than the previous two parts, explores the complexity of the relationship between the subject and the subjected, or intellectuals and workers. While overcoming ontological bifurcation between themselves and workers and transparently representing workers without any side effect of representation (p. 243), the intellectuals of the 1980s tried to fuse themselves organically with workers For this, acquiring moral privileges was the most important dimension of college students—giving up the dreams and ambitions of South Korea’s [End Page 201] rapidly rising middle class to which they ontologically belong (p. 264). As frequently expressed in...


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pp. 200-203
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