By Taryn Assaf
It began with a mouthwatering, fragrant dinner of dubu-kimchi, Korea’s stir-fried kimchi and tofu dish, and hae-mul pajeon, seafood and green onion pancake, at a restaurant called Min Ga (Commoner’s House), located in Busan’s PNU neighborhood (which, by the way, is dedicated to serving all natural, organic food grown locally in Korea and supports Korean farmers). Sitting on the floor of a humble dining room at the far end of a long wooden table, I faced a wall lined with massive ceramic pots made for fermenting kimchi; to my right, a busy little woman raced away in the kitchen, magically serving up dishes for another full dining room separated by the wall to my back. After licking our plates clean, the owner, Kim In-Gi, replaced our empty dishes with hwang-cha (Korean yellow tea) as he sat down to begin what would become a heartening conversation with an unforgettable man.
His story flowed with inexplicable ease, touring the chronology of his life experiences that led him into an intimate and influential position within the Busan chapter of the massive student led democracy movement of June 1987, which ended with the resignation of military dictator Chun Doo-Hwan and Korea’s first direct democratic elections. Philosophy, enlightenment, kidnappings, beatings, book burnings, controversy, corruption- he is no stranger to it all. And so his story reminds us of the incredible influence of people- their ideas, resilience and action- in creating a more equal and just society, but also how people’s ideas continue to stifle democracy in favor of the interests of the powerful elite classes. Fitting, then, that he ended the conversation with questions and concerns about the present and future of democracy in this country- how is democracy defined in Korea? Who decides what democracy looks like? Has democracy been achieved, or has it yet to be fully realized? This is the history of Korean democracy seen through the eyes of one man – one man’s role in the history of a nation.
Early Life and Experiences
Growing up extremely poor, Kim was never destined for a university education. His parents hardly made enough money to put food on the table, making the prospect of university for their children far beyond reach. He always had a zeal for study, however, and in his high school days would spend hours alone reading the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Becoming acquainted with various philosophical ideologies became a hobby. He soon extended his readings to the Eastern philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, each influencing his understanding of the world and the people in it. When he finished high school, he had no chance of entering university because of his family situation, and so, determined to continue studying, enrolled in the air force academy, which was the best place for him to do so. Despite being able to continue studying philosophy, the situation in the air force was not ideal, and so he left to enter the military and complete his compulsory duty. After serving 33 months, he was more determined than ever to enter university. But the situation had worsened at home; his mother was sick and his brother was in jail- he needed to work to support his family. He was frequently asked why he had “given up his greatness in the military”- at the time, the military was considered a prosperous and stable occupation regarded with much prestige under the Park Chun-Hee government. He labored for his family, but his love for education never diminished. During this time he had traveled throughout Korea, and although his own family had no money and hardly a grain to eat, he encountered people much more desperate but also much happier than he. He discovered the true value of work, and, with his mind stabilized, he decided that he couldn’t postpone studying any longer.
University and the Fall of a Regime
When Kim began university, Korea was under tight military control. The country was experiencing somewhat of a political transformation; starting with the Seoul Spring (October 1979 to May 1980), rallies for democratization quickly spread throughout the country, calling for constitutional revisions that would lead to fair elections and would reflect the people’s political aspirations. These protests were harshly suppressed, revealing the aggressive and anti-democratic nature of the military, led by General Chun Doo-Hwan. By December 1979, Chun had overtaken the government in a military coup, and in the following year had crushed the demonstrations in Seoul, was responsible for the brutal attack that killed hundreds of civilians in the Gwangju uprising and had thrown the country into a state of martial law. This control extended into every realm of society, including the university. Under Chun’s regime, students and professors were constantly monitored by the military. What began as an attempt to block students and academia from exposing the truth about the regime’s role in the massacre in Gwangju (which they had elaborately covered up) eventually turned into a full scale ban of “radical” ideological books- Marxism, Leninism and countless other political and social philosophies- under the banner of “national security”. This action was legitimized by the National Security Law, which was enacted in 1948 in response to threats from North Korea, but was being used to justify repression of ideological materials and quell free speech under the guise of security. The Chun government constantly used the threat of North Korea to justify the repressive measures they placed on society.
“Government watchdogs always lived in hagwons (private schools) and universities. They monitored students constantly. Students lived in a constant state of fear, they always had the fear of kidnap or torture; living without fear was impossible. No one carried banned books. If they were caught, they were put in jail or tortured,” remarked Kim. On one occasion, Kim had been found with a book by Hegel in his possession; as punishment, he was taken to a remote location and beaten nearly to death. The 1980s were thus a very tumultuous time for university students. Students were gaining a new recognition of Korean society. Higher education revealed the paradoxes and gaps in the “anti-communist” ideologies they received from public education. They became frustrated with this realization and responded with anger and aggressiveness. “I never blamed anyone for their aggressiveness,” he said, “they were reacting in the right way.”
Students shifted their anger into action and began organizing. They organized into various groups with multiple associations and ideologies. Kim was not a part of any one group. He followed his own thoughts and ideas and through reading he developed his own way of analyzing social issues. In fact, for a year and a half he postponed his formal studies and spent 8 hours a day reading; by the end, he had read between 400 and 500 books, ending in a symbolic book burning ceremony, “I had finally realized what studying was for, and so, I ceremoniously burned the books in the establishment of my own worldview,” he said. Because of this, he was able to relate to many different student groups with different views for the movement. He was able to set himself apart and see the movement through different eyes. In this way, he drew a lot of attention to himself from the student public and became very popular; as a student of philosophy he was a great orator and regularly delivered speeches to instigate students into the movement for democracy. “I was not an essential figure in the movement,” he said, “but I was in a unique position where I could understand all facets of the protest from an objective viewpoint; because of this, I was also criticized, but as a philosophy student, I could not believe in one ideology without being critical of it.”
Tensions rose as the student movement progressed throughout the country. Students became increasingly frustrated by increasing controls that choked freedom at universities and restricted many other democratic freedoms throughout society. Kim kept up his role as an orator, and he continued encouraging people to come out and participate- in Busan, at its peak, the number of student protestors alone reached more than 20,000. After much organizing, the movement eventually moved from the campus to the streets, and, confronted by the aggressive military and riot police, became more militant in its methods. Students were beaten, almost to death, some mysteriously disappeared, hundreds were arrested and thousands more were confronted with tear gas and use of excessive force in their detainment. They never gave into the violence, however, and threw stones or whatever they could to fight back. “The general public became inspired by the student movement,” said Kim, and as the movement began embracing both political and social issues, students joined forces with citizens’ protests throughout the city. Movement leaders forged alliances with other sectors of society and broadened the scope of their struggle to include labor and workers struggles. Students and citizens worked together, and similar alliances could be found in every major city across the country, including Seoul, Daegu, Daejeon and Cheongju. With continuing mergers of civic and student groups, the movement focused its goals on democracy, calling for constitutional revision, anti-American independence, workers liberation and an end to the military dictatorship. The government continued its mass arrests, insisting that the movement demands were too similar to North Korean propaganda. They focused their arrests on student leaders, since they were able to bring out the most supporters. Slowly, reports of beatings and of torturing detainees spread throughout the movement, including the torture death of Park Jeong-Cheol in January, 1987. Paired with Chun’s announcement in April that he would suspend all discussion of constitutional amendments, people became angered and the movement gained new confidence in their mission to bring down the regime.
As mass protests continued throughout the country, in Busan, some 300,000 people took to the streets, unable to be controlled by police. “Citizens and students worked together in asking for Chun’s resignation,” said Kim. Chun realized his options were limited- either give in to the people’s demands or launch a military operation. However, the United States highly discouraged armed intervention, and with the Olympic games scheduled for Seoul the following year, a military operation was out of the question. Finally, on June 29th, 1987, the people “brought Chun to his knees,” as Kim put it. The June 29 Declaration, delivered by Chun’s successor, Roh Tae-Woo, promised popular presidential elections and the release of political prisoners. The movement had its victory and had brought many people hope, but for Kim and many others, it also brought despair.
Re-unification and the Question of Democracy
“People stopped asking for fundamental changes that come with democratization and were more content with the small achievement of winning the chance for a popular election,” noted Kim. “The common people did not aspire to a revolution any longer.” Divisions within the opposition party put a severe rift in the democratization movement, overshadowing the “small victory” of a popular election. The democratic left was divided into two parties, one led by Kim Dae-Jung and the other by Kim Yong-Sam, while the conservative candidacy belonged to Roh Tae-Woo. Efforts by the movement to unite the two Kims had failed, and in Korea’s first popular election, Roh Tae-Woo came out victorious, putting a dagger into the heart of the democracy movement. “After that, life didn’t change very much. Korea still holds the constitution from that time, and the meaning of democracy is still divided,” remarked Kim.
How is democracy divided in Korea? According to Kim, the largest obstacle to true democracy is the division of Korea itself. But the issue doesn’t start there. To evaluate democracy on the peninsula, “one must consider his view of history and how his life is involved with that history,” says Kim. For him, the issue starts from the era of Japanese colonialism. During this time, Korean elites actively supported the Japanese. They were primarily concerned with their self-interests, and as a result, were some of the few Koreans who benefitted from this arrangement. “For over 100 years, people were fooled by the privileged into believing that a democratic society can be achieved by following the rules of the elites.” No one dared themselves to achieve democracy (or liberation) because they were “brainwashed” for over a century to believe that democracy could be achieved through blind consent.
Kim believes that this still influences the public mindset when it comes to democratization. “The biggest problem facing Korea is reunification,” he says, “but no one is aware of the seriousness of the problem because reunification is not in the self-interest of the elite or the conservative government; those in power are not concerned with this issue,” and so this opinion trickles down to the rest of the population. “The current division of Korea is like the human body stifled by a tight belt. The blood circulation is terrible; we need to take off the belt and let the blood flow,” as he put it. To determine who is truly concerned about bettering Korea, we must recognize who is most concerned with reunification- the issue is about Korea’s and Korean’s future. One way to sustain peace on the peninsula and work toward reunification, in Kim’s opinion, would be to build more industrial complexes, such as the one at Kaeseong. By sending more South Koreans to work in these complexes, there would naturally be more exchanges between workers. In the face of tension between the two governments, workers from both sides would agree that they would sustain damage from the conflict, and so the potential to block it would be greater. Kim believes that this will naturally lead to better cooperation between the North and South, and the possibility of war will decrease. The threat of war will not decrease on the watch of the current government, who, just like the government before it, puts the Korean people under the threat of war by poorly managing efforts for peace. Peace is in the hands of the Korean people, and must be delivered by them and them alone. With July 2013 marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement between the North and South, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the meaning of democracy in the context of peace and reunification.
Obstacles will always present themselves in the struggle for democracy, but “we should step over those obstacles and proceed, no matter how long it takes us; we should dare ourselves to achieve democracy, peace, and reunification. We need to determine what it means to be a democratic society- we can not wait. In order to realize that goal, we must always be aware of everything around us, and in time, history will bring a right and just society.” Kim’s story indicates how ordinary people are implicated in history- how their pasts influence the present and their future can be determined by the culmination of these experiences.
Please pay Mr. Kim and his wife a visit if you are in Busan and love healthy Korean food.
*An immense thank you to Eunkyung (Chris) Kim and Hyunsook (Geoffry) Kim for translation.
*If you would like to read more on the history of the democratization movement, please visit our resources page.