The Origins and Legacies of South Korean Protest Culture

Paul Y. Chang, Harvard University

Charles R. Kim. Youth for Nation: Culture and Protest in Cold War South Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017. 304 pp. $60 (cloth).

Sun-Chul Kim. Democratization and Social Movements in South Korea: Defiant Institutionalization. London: Routledge, 2016. 180 pp. $115 (cloth); $35 (paper); $52 (e-book).

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Charles R. Kim’s Youth for Nation: Culture and Protest in Cold War South Korea and Sun-Chul Kim’s Democratization and Social Movements in South Korea: Defiant Institutionalization help us understand the unique attributes of Korean protest culture today. Each book offers a brilliant read on its own, but when read together they reveal the long trajectory that set the stage for the contemporary movement culture in Korea. First, although Youth for Nation is much more than a study of the April 19 student movement in 1960 (hereafter, 4.19), it highlights this consequential event in the broader context of reconstruction following the Korean War (1950–1953). Democratization and Social Movements in South Korea, on the other hand, scrutinizes the dynamics of the 1987 democratic transition. These studies thus conveniently bookend the decades-long democracy movement, from 4.19, arguably the seminal Korean protest event, to the June 1987 protests that marked the end of institutionalized authoritarianism. Second, in regard to the analytic questions they raise and the research designs they employ, the two books fundamentally “do” different things. In Youth for Nation, C. Kim explicates the “narrative patterns” (26) and cultural themes salient in the postwar period in order to explain the emergence and contours of the 4.19 student movement. Contrarily, SC Kim’s central purpose in Democratization and Social Movements in South Korea is to track the aftermath of the June 1987 protests and the democratic transition. In short, C. Kim’s book is a study of the origins of protest,  whereas SC Kim’s book is an exposition of the consequences of dissent. Again, reading these books together, we come to learn about the distinct sociopolitical contexts from which Korea’s protest culture emerged and evolved, and we gain a better appreciation of not only why the recent candlelight protests “made sense” but also how they were able to succeed....