- South Korean Youth Activism in the Longue Durée
Coincidentally, the publication of two important books on youth culture and political activism in South Korea occurred within months of the onset and denouement of the protest movement now known as the 2016–2017 Candlelight Revolution. The timing of the books’ publication, which carried a sense of remarkable serendipity, was by no means the result of their being rushed into production. On the contrary, both book projects represent long-term endeavors over a decade in the making. Igniting the Internet: Youth and Activism in Postauthoritarian South Korea, by communications scholar Jiyeon Kang, examines how epic-scale candlelight demonstrations became a familiar activist repertoire as “Internet-born youth-driven mass protests” since 2002. Historian Charles R. Kim’s Youth for Nation: Culture and Protest in Cold War South Korea explores the context and discourses surrounding an earlier [End Page 259] formative social movement centered on youth, the April 1960 Student Revolution. Based on painstaking and meticulous research, both books bring measured scholarly insight regarding the social practices, conceptual vocabulary, and generational subjectivities that informed these precursors to present-day South Korean dissent movements. The authors’ astute reminders of the historically contingent nature of such activism are even more striking by virtue of their timeliness, given that their books were released during the years now best-known in South Korea for the transformative but largely unanticipated five-month period of weekly mass protests that led to the impeachment of disgraced former president Park Geun-Hye.
In Youth for Nation, Kim grapples with the historical context and cultural legacies of the April Revolution (henceforth 4.19) as arguably the key event in the consolidation of South Korea’s postcolonial ideology and discourse. He contends this process can be understood through the development of two discursive schemas: “wholesome modernization” and “the student vanguard.” The narratives, which similarly regarded educated youths as the nation’s forerunning historical actors, nevertheless existed in tension—and at times in conflict—with each other. According to Kim’s analysis, they reflected a dynamic that valorized unity and disunity for the sake of the nation. That is, both narratives drew rhetorical force and moral legitimacy from an ethos of service to the nation: one called for loyalty to state-led national development and the other for defiance to authority in the face of political injustice by rising up in protest.
Kim analyzes an array of cultural texts to construct three interconnected sub-arguments: 1) Although works of nationalist propaganda promoting the vanguard narrative of anticolonial resistance may have been disseminated by ideologues and intellectuals to foster patriotism and loyalty during the post-Korean War period, they ultimately helped enable 4.19, which “established a durable noninstitutional political culture that centered on periodic contention between student activists and the authoritarian state” (3). 2) Highly gendered patriarchal visions of the nation were operative in both narratives of wholesome modernization and the student vanguard. 3) The Park Chung-Hee regime appropriated the hypermasculine vanguard scheme to inform economy-first campaigns of official mobilization, but it also depended upon mainstream intellectuals to provide discreet ideological support under the veneer of wholesome modernization and the “forward-looking idealism of 4.19” (186).
What is striking about Kim’s approach throughout the book is how he pivots between nuanced granular interpretations of texts on the one hand and panoramic argumentative claims on the other. Those sweeping contentions feel [End Page 260] bold yet grounded, thanks to the author having done the legwork of surveying caches of sources while discerning patterns and providing selected close readings. For example, he discusses at some length the film Irŭm ŏmnŭn pyŏldŭl (Nameless Stars, 1959) about the anonymous participants of the colonial-era Kwangju Students’ Movement to illustrate an example of heroic vanguard masculinity. The author then identifies the film in keeping with a...