“Without a doubt, building and maintaining a democracy is a process rather than a onetime event,” said Institute for Korean Studies director Seung-kyung Kim, in opening the institute’s second annual conference Friday. “Assessing Korean Democratization and Democracy: From Molotov Cocktails to Candle Lights,” the conference marks the first anniversary of the institute’s inauguration within the School of Global and International Studies.
“South Korean democracy has experienced many challenges in the last two decades,” Kim continued. “But the last year has arguably been the most turbulent.”
Turbulent, indeed, but the process through which a president beset by scandals and accused of corruption was impeached and imprisoned and her successor elected has been peaceful. The last year’s so-called candlelight protests and methodical transfer of power stand in stark relief against three episodes of extreme violence recounted by historian Bruce Cumings in the conference keynote: the Jeju Uprising of 1948, the No Gun Ri massacre of 1950, and the Gwangju Uprising of 1980.
Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago and author of the landmark two-volume study The Origins of the Korean War (1981), Cumings pointed to these dark chapters, largely suppressed from both the Korean and the American historical record, to illustrate a long-abiding desire for democracy in Korea, along with its robust history of civil society.
Over the course of these atrocities, and in the years since the first direct presidential election in 1987, one theme has resounded, according to Cumings, “The willingness of people to take things into their own hands and do something about things that concern them.”
“It’s always seemed to me since I went to Korea in the 1960s that Korea had a much stronger civil society than people gave it credit for,” Cumings mused. “Such a highly educated populace, that would sit in tea rooms and criticize [military dictator] Park Chung-Hee up one side and down the other. They saw themselves as part of a Confucian tradition of remonstrance; it’s their responsibility to remonstrate with the government.
“It made me think you were going to need a dictatorship if you were going to suppress that civil society,” he suggested.
“When it comes to thinking about Korea’s democracy, this to me is still one of the less understood and most important stories of Korea’s modern journey,” noted Kathleen Stephens, U.S. Ambassador to Korea from 2008-2011. The William J. Perry Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stephens discussed policy in an afternoon panel with SGIS Dean Lee Feinstein. Stephens’ own history with Korea dates to the 1970s, when she worked at a rural school as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Stephens’ second stint in Korea, from 1983-89, was in the capacity of political officer in the U.S. diplomatic corps. It was a period that saw a growing fervor for democracy, culminating in the June 1987uprising. But it was still two years after that watershed, Stephens noted, before the State Department published its report on the 1980 events at Gwangju. In that uprising — which Cumings had conditionally compared during his talk to the Tiananmen Square Massacre — government troops (acting with U.S. approval) had suppressed citizens protesting the imposition of martial law, resulting in an estimated 600 fatalities.
The fact that the report was not released until 1989, Stephens said, “illustrates the fact that democratization was the sine qua non of beginning the process of reconciliation, and of having a more mature and improved U.S.-South Korea relationship.”
Coming to terms with the past, Cumings asserted, has been critical not only in the course of democratization in South Korea; it is the key to better relations within the peninsula. “A full knowledge of the history of the 20th century would make it possible for North and South Korea to understand each other better and eventually reconcile.”
According to Cumings, that was the philosophy espoused by Kim Dae-Jung, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient sentenced to death for his role in the Gwangju uprising, who ultimately served as president of the R.O.K. from 1998-2003. “His whole policy was not one of reunification but of reconciliation — for a generation at least. One of Kim’s projects was what he called ‘a history that opens the future,’ not a matter of putting the past behind us but knowing what was in the past in the way that had been prevented for 40 years of dictatorship — of getting it out in the open, looking at it, understanding it, coming to understand the motivations of one’s enemies.”
That willingness to excavate, acknowledge, and heal from the past that thirty years of democracy have nurtured has manifested in the many peace museums and memorials Cumings mentioned in his keynote, along with “hundreds of histories, memoirs, oral accounts, documentaries, films, and novels,” about the atrocities committed under the country’s authoritarian regime.
With the longitudinal perspective on Korean culture that her own career has afforded, Stephens reinforced Cumings’ characterization of the Korean attitude toward the past. “My sense about Korea is that notwithstanding the continued salience and intensity and pain of a lot of these historical issues that do need to be addressed, there is also this sense of ‘we’re still looking forward.’”
Stephens compared Korean resilience and optimism to prevailing sentiments in other critical regions in crisis — from the Balkans to Belfast – where her career has taken her. “And I have to say that in other places where I’ve lived there hasn’t been that same capacity, and people have really gotten stuck. I do admire the ability of Koreans to remember their generations back but also to make things right for the next generation.”
Although the increasing frequency of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing since the summer and the exchange of hostile rhetoric that has accompanied it have escalated security concerns, Stephens argues that humanitarian considerations remain vital in managing the North Korean relationship.
“The path to a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula has to be through addressing its fundamental tragedy — its division, the absence of reconciliation—and without that, if we see it purely as a nuclear issue, of nonproliferation — we’re not going to get there. We need to think and care about the people of North Korea. We need to keep first and foremost in our minds that these are human beings who, through no fault of their own, are part of a divided peninsula and should have a better future.”
The conference also featured a panel of international scholars, including Paul Chang, Associate Professor, Sociology, Harvard University; Taegyun Park, Professor of Korean Studies and Associate Dean, Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University; and Youngju Ryu, Associate Professor, Modern Korean Literature, University of Michigan. Funding for the conference came from the Dr. Lee Se Ung Distinguished Lecture Series on Korean Global Affairs.