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Reviewed by:
  • Building Ships, Building a Nation: Korea's Democratic Unionism under Park Chung Hee
  • Tae Yang Kwak
Building Ships, Building a Nation: Korea's Democratic Unionism under Park Chung Hee by Hwasook Nam. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. 336 pp. Illustrations, maps. $35.00 (paper)

Hwasook Nam's Building Ships, Building a Nation: Korea's Democratic Unionism under Park Chung Hee is a compelling work with much historiographical significance. At the core of the book is a richly detailed and contextualized case study of labor activism during the 1960s at the Korea Shipbuilding and Engineering Corporation (KSEC), then South Korea's largest shipyard, based primarily on the extensive archival records of the KSEC Union and supplemented by interviews with many former union activists. This case study is utilized to establish the continuity of not only labor activism specifically but liberalism more generally, from the colonial period to the present, thereby challenging the tendency to emphasize disjunctures in contemporary Korean history. In particular, Nam contests the notion of a lost generation of "weak" labor in the 1950s and 1960s, decades separated by two unconnected eras of militant labor activism: a post-colonial flash of activism in the mid-1940s and the "new" activism of the 1970s and 1980s. To indicate the currency of the discontinuity perspective, Nam cites a fellow scholar, Nam Hee Lee, "Workers in the 1970s, therefore, not only were a generation removed from the militant labor mobilization of the immediate post-1945 period, but also were without any social or collective memory of such a movement" (p. 6). The interpretation of labor as weak during the 1950s and 1960s is popularly reinforced by the collective perspective of the "386 Generation" that privileges its own agency in creating a new activism in the 1970s and 1980s. However, this new activism was not so new. There was indeed significant labor activism in the 1960s, and by demonstrating that the underlying labor-management tensions, methods of resistance, and liberal-democratic attitudes can be traced back to early post-liberation as well as the late colonial years, Nam has crafted a vibrant narrative that bridges multiple historical divides and acknowledges the historical agency of a long-neglected generation of worker activists.

The labor movement of the 1960s has been obscured, in part, by the prevailing view of the Park Chung Hee years (1961-1979) as a monolithic period of repression. Nam rejects this view. The extraordinary political oppression [End Page 123] that characterized Park's Fourth Republic (1972-1979) under the Yusin Constitution often overshadows the more complex state-society relationship that existed in the Third Republic (1963-1972). These were two qualitatively distinct periods. The fact that Park ran in three direct, popular elections during the Third Republic meant that he had to be extremely mindful of the pulse of the public, especially early in the 1960s when his claim to power was tenuous. Relative to the 1970s under Yusin, the government was more tolerant of labor in the 1960s, and it was in this space that KSEC union activism took place. Union members and leaders were self-conscious egalitarians, who, in Nam's account, attempted to practice a "democratic unionism" that drew on the liberal ideals and agenda expressed during the Second Republic (1960-1961), the American Occupation Government (1945-1948), the latter part of the colonial period (1910-1945), and even the Enlightenment Movement of the late nineteenth century.

This egalitarianism had its limits, however. Nam often refers to the significance of the gendered, masculine perspective of the unionists. (Labor activism in contemporary South Korea has often been distinguished in gendered terms: specifically, the trailblazing emergence of predominantly female, light-industrial worker activism of the 1970s, as opposed to the militant, predominantly male, heavy-industrial worker activism of the 1980s.) KSEC members were typically men who were motivated by a desire to realize their socially expected roles as breadwinners and patriarchs. These men also internalized a mission to transcend the social and class hierarchies that had been prescribed by antiquated tradition, and to actively pursue a modern identity rooted in the promises of liberalism. Ironically, Nam suggests that compulsory military service, an experience shared by almost all...


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pp. 123-125
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