Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Korean Thermidor?

The following is the text of a short 20 minute presentation I had read for me at the recent American Association of Geographers conference during a session entitled Postcolonial Korea: Conjunctures and Critical Geographies. I will turn it into something longer and more substantive eventually. In the meantime, enjoy.

A Korean Thermidor?

To make a period illegible is much more than to simply condemn it. One of the effects of illegibility is to make it impossible to find in the period in question the very principles capable of remedying its impasses. If the period is declared to be pathological, nothing can be extracted from it for the sake of orientation, and the conclusion, whose pernicious effects confront us every day, is that one must resign oneself to disorientation as a lesser evil. Let us therefore pose, with regard to a previous and visibly closed sequence of the politics of emancipation, that it must remain legible for us, independently of the final judgment about it.

Alain Badiou, The Courage of the Present, Le Monde, 13 February 2010.


The purpose of this paper is to understand the significance of the current neoconservative regime of Lee Myung Bak in relation to the political sequence of democratic reform undertaken by the Korean democracy movement over the last 20 years. In other words, what does the return of conservative rule mean for Korea’s liberal-left (or reform bloc as I prefer to call it) and their efforts to introduce greater transparency, participation, liberty, and equality into the Korean society and political economy? Using Alain Badiou’s notion of Thermidorean politics, I am interested in a reading of the current moment as a corruption; a corruption that seeks to make the political sequence of democratic reform illegible.[i] For Badiou, “a Thermidorean is essentially politically corrupt – in other words, he exploits the precariousness of political convictions” (130). The Thermidorean revises and re-interprets events, changes their meaning, enlists them to the service of another political project: a political project that is, essentially, the ending of the sequence begun by previous events. It is a containment exercise in which political subjectivity, Badiou remarks, “is referred back to order, rather than to the possibility about that which is latent in a situation, under some maxim or other. This counter-revolutionary swing could be called the statification of political consciousness (132).” For Badiou, statification means a “termination of a politics,” and a coupling between the State and established interests, and this coupling certifies that emancipatory political prescriptions are absent from now on (133).


Since the election of Lee Myung Bak there has been a severing of the institutional nexus between the Korean state and reform-oriented civil society that was established by the Korean democracy movement. The effect here is to limit political space in which criticism of the regime is made and democratic demands articulated. I use the term political space here in two senses: to denote a nexus between state and civil society, and a space of representation in which the exclusions of the regime are voiced.[ii] It is these spaces and the sequences that made them legible that the current regime is focused on making illegible.

To give a short taste of this reaction as it currently stands: the Ministry of Gender Equality, which expanded under the reform period, has lost most of its budget and mandate; the National Human Rights Commission has been restructured and its powers decreased; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission defunded. Parachute appointments and political dismissals have taken place across arts and culture (from the Korean National University for the Arts and independent media organizations (Media Act and Indie Space) to state broadcasters and communications commissions). These changes have occurred even in relatively obscure state institutions like the Korean Institute of Finance and Korea Labour Institute, where even moderate Keynesians have been flushed out. The National Security Law has been used to investigate social movements for reunification and social equality.

History textbooks have been ordered rewritten to clear up “inaccuracies” about the past, especially those that conceptualize modern Korean history as a struggle for national independence. The New Right, who are a curious assemblage of former left-nationalists-cum-statist-politicians-and-economic-libertarians, regards this interpretation as an excessive demand of the “pro-North Left.” They argue that it is wrong to criticize Japan and the US because, in their opinion, without the colonial and post-colonial interventions of these countries Korea would have never developed. The New Right even advocate for an alternative dating of the foundation of the republic, to distance the foundation of the current South Korean state from the peninsula-wide demands of the independence movement. While criticizing the excesses of the left’s ignorance of “the achievements of South Korea in their insistence of first achieving peaceful coexistence,” the New Right praises dictator Park Chung Hee for his contributions to democracy.

Beyond the state apparatus, the majority of state funding for NGOs has dried up and funding has been denied to any NGO supporting “illegal” public demonstrations. Using this criteria, the police have included 1842 social and civic organizations in the latter category, from Women’s help lines to economic policy NGOs, most of whom participated in the candlelight demonstrations against Lee Myung Bak’s conservative policies during the summer of 2008. Meanwhile funding has been diverted to conservative civil society groups belonging to rightist movements (such as anti-communist veterans organizations) which have in the past attacked liberal opposition, and destroyed the alter set up to honour former President Roh Moo Hyun following his death last summer.[iii] These conservative forces paint even the neoliberal policies of the reform governments, such as equity rules and limits on family control within the Chaebol, as “leftist” policy.

What is interesting about this reaction is that it is aimed as painting the whole sequence of democratic struggle from the 1970s and 1980s onward to the liberal-democratic reform governments from 1997-2007 as ‘pro-North leftist.’ This serves to obscure the full set of political relations within this sequence of democratic politics, including the steps taken by reform governments to re-segment social space and to slow the sequence of reform through their own economic policies. Thus, even the neoliberalism of the Kim and Roh governments are mislabeled as policies “imprisoned by old ideology and populism to incite the masses.”[iv] This has the consequence of obscuring the reform period and identifying the periods where more progressive demands were not met by the reform bloc, and where alternative arrangements were possible. In other words, it obscures political difference and makes all democratic demands of the reform period out to be a form of excess.


I want to make the argument that the point of making the sequence of democratic reform illegible is not simply political opportunism but to obscure the rupturing of social space inherent in democratic events and democratic struggles. It is this sense of rupture, foundational to any proper politics (construed as a sense of contesting the problems of existing social structures), that is being made illegible here and is the fear of conservative politicians, even, quite often, those on the liberal left.

To better understand the sense of rupture associated with the democracy struggle it is important to scrutinize the effects of particular events on the democratic transition. I date the political sequence of democratic reform roughly from the events of the June Democratic Uprising and Great Workers’ Struggles of the 1987. These events effected the transition towards representative democracy. However, the roots of these mobilizations extend further back and have their origins in the social movements against the dictatorships of Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) and Chun Doo Hwan (1980-1987).[v] The events of 1987 were not isolated, but, rather, they were dense points within a constellation of many different events.[vi] Not the least of these was the democratic trade union movement of the 1970s and the Kwangju uprising of the 1980 -- these events were a part of the larger build-up to 1987. During this period, the urban space of the city, the space of the export factory, and the peninsula as a whole became a site of social protest. The fleeting moments of change experienced in the events of 1987, and other protests both before and after, are still retained in the memory of many of the participants, and the potentiality for social change that exists here is what, in many ways, continues to threaten the established order.

In the events, the borders of social space, of exportist industrialization, Cold War anticommunism, and militarized masculinity were temporarily broken. At the theoretical level, this feeling of rupture is perhaps best captured by Kristen Ross who has dealt at length with the effects of events such as mass uprisings on social space.[vii] She describes how events such as uprisings and general strikes allow, “if only for an instant, the exploration of other possible lives, a vast unexplored area of possibility.”

In her understanding of democratic events, Ross also touches on the impossibility of tolerating the present moment, the return of status quo politics, after experiencing revolutionary ferment. “When life has been lived differently, and when it seems as though it just might continue to be lived differently, when all this is fading and existence threatens to lapse once again into the dreary routine… how can this possibly be tolerated?” (141), she asks. When a sequence, a moment, is obscured or ‘taken back’ by the forces of order, it is lost, perhaps irretrievably. Ross argues that this is a process that is spatial as much as it is social as “What is lost is not simply the physical space of the occupation but also the act of the momentary taking (prise) of power, the taking of speech, the taking of conscience (141).

The reason why the demands of the democracy movement for egalitarian democracy (and not simply national unification) are dangerous to the conservative order and must be obscured is that the past shows the “people” or the “minjung” (the Korean word for the ‘people’ or the ‘masses’) coming into existence in the actuality of their refusal of the status quo. By making the past illegible, “it is this version of the people that is difficult now to locate.” Thus in conservative discourse the ‘minjung’ is replaced with ‘somin’ (common people), a subject with less agency. But nonetheless, notions of ‘the people’ or the minjung do resurface, in current social struggles, that “unsettle the present, to disturb its forgetfulness,” in opposition to the narratives of both the right and centre-left that seek to confine popular agency to the past. (142) Recent disruptions such as the 2008 ‘made cow’ protests and the mass mourning of Roh Moo Hyun last summer show a return of popular agency of masses, and yet, the interpretation of these events has been to consider them as hysterical moments, and thus defer any question about the demands and potentialities produced in them. During the reform governments, liberal-left reformers were complicit in this process as they also attempted to restore conservative social space through cracking down on labour protests, discouraging industrial unionism, and rolling out neoliberal financial strategies. They too participated in a politics that deferred participation in the name of economic inevitability of market forces, creating empty time in which social struggles were required to wait, patiently and let the economy run its course.


Here we have, in the terminology of Jacques Rancierre, a process of politics as a police operation.[viii] A politics that ignores popular agency by closing off areas of government policy from popular participation and saying “there is nothing here that is happening, move on keep going.” This is the sense of politics as dispersal, and it comes up against politics as an active process of bringing up exclusions and exposing lacunae in the established socio-political order. Thermidorean politics reserves politics for only those that are deemed to have ‘interest,’ such as property developers and the conglomerates, and popular agency is dispersed. Again, the police say, “it is only we who have interest, all you others, go back to your daily lives, there is nothing here.”

The most troubling part of the Korean thermidor is that the politicians active in the reaction to this sequence are not simply those politicians of the right. They are also many former left activists, often of the National Liberation variety, such as Kim Young Hwan, but also from various other factions, such as former Peoples Democracy activist Shin Ji Ho. In France, Badiou notes, the actual thermidoreans of 1794 were not foreign aristocrats, or even Girondins, but were part of the Robespierrist majority in the Convention. So too, the Korean thermidor involves a mismatch of interests, including many former democracy movement activists and various politicians of the liberal-left and the right (Badiou 135). One might say that thermidorean politics shares a lot the sense of righteousness that accompanied earlier factional disputes of the 1980s movement -- and perhaps that is why many of the former ideologues of these debates are now part of the reaction -- but it shares nothing of the sense of possibility of the earlier events.


I want to conclude by suggesting that the Korean thermidor is a particular kind of forgetting, one in which social memories are associated with a chimera of the ultra left. This fiction only serves to keep politics as a police operation where no one asks questions and politics is dispersed, left only to private property and established interest. This obscures thinking about what possible alternatives might have been, and how best to organize an economic that is participatory, egalitarian and democratic. It also prevents us from understanding how democratic demands shape space, obscuring the impasses of past periods and making it difficult to extract lessons that might help us understand the current moment.

[i] Alain Badiou. (2006) Metapolitics. London: Verso

[ii] As Kim Dong Choon has argued civil society (simin sahoe) in Korea is largely concerned with societal transformation and thus the priorities of the democracy movement still continue to inform it. It is not merely a passive sphere of interest group mediation. See Kim, Dong-Choon. (2006) “Growth and Crisis of the Korean Citizen’s Movement.” Korea Journal. Summer 2006, pp. 99-128. See also, Lee, Nam-Hee (2007) The Making of the Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Lee, Nam-hee. (2007) ‘The South Korean student movement: Undongkwon as a

counterpublic sphere’ in Charles Armstrong ed. Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State. Second Edition. London: Routledge 95-121. Unless otherwise stated, all Korean names cited here begin with the surname followed by first name of the author.

[iii] See, for example, Hankyoreh, 20 May 2009. “President of KUNA announces resignation due to a “political

audit.” [Accessed 20 May 2009].

Hankyoreh, 21 April 2009. “Subsidies cut to civic groups who participated in candlelight

vigil demonstrations.” [Accessed

May 2009]. Hankyoreh. 14 May 2009. “Police’s irrational response against civil society. “ [Accessed March 2010].

[iv] See the New Right Founding Declaration.

[v] One could also argue that this sequence goes back much further to anti-imperialist period, or the suppression of socialist and even social democratic movements in Korea in the interwar years between liberation and the Korean War.

[vi] Though only momentarily, Lee Myung Bak was also part of the early democracy movement. He was arrested and served four months in prison for leading demonstrations against the normalization of diplomatic ties with Japan in 1964. See Hankyoreh “Who is Lee Myung-bak? A profile of the man of myth and his bid to lead the nation.” 22 September 2007, Accessed 19 March 2010.

[vii] See Kristin Ross. (2002) May ’68 and its afterlives. University of Chicago Press.

[viii] See Jacques Rancierre. (2001) Ten Theses on Politics. Theory and Event. Vol. 5 Issue 3.

Copyleft. Jamie Doucette 2010

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