Sun, Oct 30, 2005 - Page 18 News List

South Korea's authoritarian past is withering away

Despite democratization, Seungsook Moon claims the effects of South Korea's painful transformation after World War II are still being felt today

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea
By Seungsook Moon
253 pages
Duke University Press

Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea -- what a title! The subject matter is relatively simple when you separate it out, however, which is not to say the book itself is easy reading.

What it sets out to show is how the post-Korean War state on the south of the peninsula established itself as modern, that is to say industrialized, and at the same time became a bulwark against Communism. This involved the maintenance of strong military forces and the suppression of a large number of human rights.

In the process the expected roles of men and of women became polarized. Men were encouraged, some would say forced, to be dominating, overbearing, "courageous" and frequently disdainful of the other sex. Once out of the forces, they were told they were Nature's breadwinners. Women, on the other hand, were taught to be docile and family-centered, even though various campaigns to encourage birth-control also characterized the post-war era.

This period following the end of the Korean War in 1953 was also a time of cruel authoritarian repression in South Korean society. Protesters were fired on and suspected Communist-sympathizers trailed and sometimes disposed of. But a period of democratization and freeing-up followed. The continuing effects of the earlier repressive style of government is one of the things examined by Seungsook Moon, an Associate professor at the US' prestigious Vassar College.

What is exceptionally interesting for readers in Taiwan is how closely Taiwanese conditions, in our case from 1949 to 1987, mirrored those of South Korea, but how extravagantly different the two societies are today. Indeed, one of the most extraordinary features of the modern history of East Asia is how quickly and apparently easily Taiwan shook off the vestiges of authoritarian rule and became, almost overnight, a flourishing libertarian democracy. South Korea is also now a democracy, but if this book is to be believed conditions there remain rather different from those in Taiwan.

The first thing that will strike someone picking up this book may well be the photos. One of these, for instance, shows 10 male figures face downwards on the ground, with their hands tied behind their backs, supporting themselves on the tips of their toes and the crown of their skulls. The caption reads, "Military-style punishment on a college campus, 1995." A college campus? In 1995? That anything remotely similar could have happened in Taiwan at that date is laughable.

Other pictures show "military confrontation between riot police and unionized workers of Daewoo Automobile Co, 2001" where there are approximately the same number of military as there are workers in the photo, one side pushing against a steel barrier, the other resisting. Another shows "the first Women Workers Festival in Seoul, 1988," with six women standing on what looks like the stage of a smallish school. Just imagine the gaudy display that would have attended any such gathering in Taiwan, even at that date!

This is an academic book and as such unlikely to be read by even quite enthusiastic Korea-watchers. It is not addressed to them, however, but to the author's fellow-academics interested in refining such concepts of modernity and evolving gender-roles. Even so, there is much interesting material here if the reader has the patience to unearth it.

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