The triumphant return of Park Geun-Hye to the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential palace, after her victory in the December 2012 election, cannot but prompt reflections on the nature of the country’s democratization process. Ms Park grew up there as the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-Hee, who ruled the Republic of Korea with an iron fist after the 1961 military coup that brought him to power. Following her mother’s death in 1974, the young Geun-Hye served as General Park’s First Lady, until he in turn was shot over the dinner table by his chief of intelligence in 1979. The dictatorship persisted for another eight years under Park’s brutal successor, General Chun, in face of countrywide protests that culminated in the great June Uprising of 1987, after which a period of ‘managed democracy’ ensued. The decade of centre-left government that opened in 1997, under the presidencies of Kim Dae Jung, a famous dissident, and Roh Mu-hyun, a former civil-rights lawyer, suggested to many that the liberal opposition movement had at last entered into its inheritance, supplanting an older, more conservative generation—albeit under the inauspicious sign of the Asian debt crisis. In 2007, however, a low turn-out by disappointed Roh voters helped the right-wing candidate, ex-Hyundai ceo Lee Myung-Bak, into the Blue House with the support of just 30 per cent of the overall electorate.

Park Geun-Hye’s victory, crowning her party’s success in last April’s legislative election, now sets the stage for a full decade of conservative rule, from 2007 through to 2017. More than this, it appears to ensconce the rule of an elite that governed the country not just under the Cold War dictatorship but under the bitter decades of Japanese colonialism that preceded it. To understand the political dynamics of contemporary South Korea it is necessary to consider the origins and development of this class, as well as the character of the 1987 ‘transition’ and the limited, though not inconsequential, achievements of the liberal Kim–Roh administrations in dealing with this traumatic legacy.footnote1 I will argue that the polarization of the country’s political culture is the result of a hegemonic struggle over the meaning of South Korea’s development course, pitting those who benefited from the Japanese occupation, the Korean War and the decades of breakneck industrialization, under authoritarian governments and American tutelage, against those who suffered from them. Recent attempts by South Korean intellectuals to reburnish the ideological credentials of the business and political elite should be read in this light.

To a degree almost unparalleled among other oecd economies, the process of class formation in South Korea has been shaped by a series of wrenching shocks and dislocations, from both external and internal sources. ‘Modernization’ of the peninsula began with Japan’s annexation of the ancient, unitary state in 1910, as the colonial authorities set about a radical transformation of Korea’s traditional, agrarian-bureaucratic society, in line with the Imperial master-plan. Large numbers of Koreans were recruited to staff the lower ranks of the burgeoning Japanese administration and the notoriously brutal colonial police. As Bruce Cumings demonstrates in his classic Origins of the Korean War, landowners were left in place, to collaborate with the authorities or retreat into cultural pursuits or contemplation; but harsh new taxes based on a countrywide cadastral survey drove subsistence tenant-farmers to desperate rebellion. From 1931, the peninsula was intensively developed as the gateway to ‘Manchukuo’; uprooted peasants were coerced as shock troops to build roads and railways, to man heavy industry in the North or to fight in Manchuria, as anti-colonial guerrillas multiplied. With the full-scale invasion of China in 1937, increasing numbers of Koreans were forcibly conscripted, while others volunteered for the Imperial Army. Ideological terror also intensified: Anti-Communist Association branches undertook ‘thought-cleansing sessions’ at village and factory level, often operating out of police stations; suspected leftists would be tortured to reveal their comrades’ identities. Labour mobilizations were also carried out by Korean police officers—the most hated of all the collaborators.footnote2

The collapse of the colonial power after Hirohito’s broadcast on 15 August 1945 was greeted by Koreans with spontaneous celebrations, the release of some 30,000 political prisoners from colonial gaols and the countrywide establishment of people’s committees. Attacks on the police proliferated as Japanese Army units disintegrated, and half-starved Koreans returned to their villages from forced labour in mines and factories to confront the collaborators who had sent them there. The us decision to divide the country, to contain the influence of its Soviet neighbour, had been accepted by Stalin without a murmur. While collaborators in the North were sacked and anti-Japanese guerrillas (like Kim Il Sung) welcomed home as heroes, in the South the opposite policies applied. Alarmed by the state of popular mobilization when they arrived in September 1945, the us occupation commanders determined to retain and ‘Koreanize’ the Japanese administrative machinery and colonial police. The nucleus of the future Republic of Korea Army, over which the us would retain operative command, was staffed with Japanese-trained officers.footnote3 These repressive forces were immediately unleashed against a rebellion that spread across the South in 1948, initially sparked by protests against police terror on Cheju island, and fighting for independence and unification. Just as under the Japanese, tens of thousands of political prisoners were gaoled and many more were sent to ‘guidance camps’ for anti-Communist re-education. Meanwhile the American occupation authorities oversaw an electoral process, widely boycotted, which confirmed the authoritarian Syngman Rhee, a long-time Korean exile in the us, as head of state. A ‘tepid opposition’, largely made up of former Southern landlords, was confined to a virtually powerless National Assembly.footnote4

The us thereby forestalled any national accounting with the forces that had collaborated with Japanese fascism; and indeed it was this layer that went on to rule the Republic of Korea. The three years of brutally destructive warfare on the peninsula that followed between 1950–53 served only to cement the position of what was disparagingly known as the ch’inilp’a, or ‘pro-Japanese faction’: the main social cleavage was defined as that between Communist and anti-Communist, rather than between Korean patriot and collaborator. Any challenge to the ruling order was painted as ‘Communist’ and ‘benefiting the North’.footnote5 Capitalist development during the Cold War era took shape within this framework. Industrialization under Hirohito had been state-sponsored, albeit often undertaken by the zaibatsu, principally Mitsui. The ever-open spigot of American funding, channelled through the authoritarian rok state, led to the concentration of wealth in giant chaebols owned by a handful of families who were soon densely intermarried with the ruling elite. Under Park’s military dictatorship in the 1960s and 70s, state monies were poured into his home region of Kyŏngsang, while the restive Chŏlla provinces in the south-west were starved of aid.

Relentless economic expansion was meanwhile creating another enemy for the ruling elite, in the form of a fast-growing working class. Strike waves broke out repeatedly against the sweatshop conditions of the textile industry, soon joined by workers in the steel, auto, shipbuilding, machine-tools and electronics sectors. They were met by police terror, with labour organizers routinely tortured by Park’s notorious kcia. After Park’s assassination in 1979, his acolytes, Generals Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, seized control. Chun proved even more murderous than Park, sending troops to fire on demonstrations in the Chŏlla capital of Kwangju; the charismatic Chŏlla liberal leader, Kim Dae Jung, who had already been serially subjected to house arrest, kidnapping and imprisonment, was sentenced to death for treason, though ultimately allowed to escape into exile through pressure from Washington. Throughout the 1980s, a radical minjung or ‘common people’ movement built up outside the party system, rallying students, industrial workers, missionary activists, peasants and the urban poor. The minjung mobilized the mass protests of June 1987 when Chun announced that his crony, Gen. Roh, would succeed him as president. Under pressure from the Reagan administration, now tilting towards the ‘decompression’ of America’s Cold War dictatorships, Roh agreed to stand for election.

But 1987 proved to be a ‘conservative democratization’, managed from above, with the regime pouring in huge amounts of money to ensure the right result.footnote6 Two liberal candidates split the anti-dictatorship vote—Kim Young Sam, chairman of the ‘tepid’ opposition party, standing against Kim Dae Jung—allowing Roh to scoop a plurality. (In the 1992 election, Kim Young Sam pushed this logic to its conclusion and ran successfully as the candidate of the governing party.) Nor were the liberal leaders interested in an alliance with the now highly mobilized working class that might have posed a fundamental challenge to the rok ruling order. For its part, courageous shop-floor struggles won improvements in pay for organized labour, but attempts to constitute a political force—along the lines of the Workers’ Party in Brazil, for example—were met with ferocious repression and the usual charges of ‘Communism’ and ‘working for the North’.footnote7 Yet 1987 was also the moment when the rok growth model began to founder, ‘squeezed’ between the rising economies of China and Southeast Asia and aggressive us exchange rates, while the modest improvement in labour’s bargaining power helped to undermine its low-wage industrialization strategy; the profitability of the chaebols entered a long-term decline. The government’s response under Kim Young Sam’s presidency (1993–97) was to prime the chaebol pump with massive doses of credit, borrowed overseas but guaranteed by the state, while encouraging the expansion of the casual, non-unionized labour force and fending off demands from Washington to lift restrictions on fdi and clarify the chaebols’ accounts. The credit bubble burst with the Asian Crisis of 1997, leaving South Korea’s finances in tatters and its economy wide open to the imf battering ram. This was the inheritance of the liberal opposition when Kim Dae Jung entered the Blue House in the first days of 1998.