A pro-democracy movement in South Korea offers lessons to two U.S. social movements — against police brutality and for a defeated ex-president.

South Korea,U.S.,social movements

Black Lives Matter protesters hold their phones aloft in Portland, Oregon, 20 July 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

What do protests in South Korea during a period of authoritarian rule last century have to do with American social movements today?

A social movement in the 1970s and 1980s that eventually brought down a dictatorial regime in the Asian nation adapted to changing circumstances and intensified as it was repressed, according to Harvard Sociology Professor Paul Chang. Much the same seems to be happening in the United States today.

South Korea offers a lesson for anyone interested in where two diametrically opposed movements in the United States — against racial injustice and against Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election — might be headed.

Repression in South Korea helped shape pro-democracy protests.

Chang has written a book, “Protest Dialectics: State Repression and South Korea’s Democracy Movement, 1970-1979,” that examines the roots of the 1980s democracy movement in the Asian nation and the formation of civil society today. The book focuses on the relationship between South Korean dissidents and the regime of dictator Park Chung-hee.

Park ruled with an iron fist between 1961 and 1979 while overseeing economic policies that brought rapid economic growth and industrialization and which became known as “the Miracle on the Han River.” As a result, South Korea became one of the fastest growing nations during the 1960s and 1970s.

A military general before becoming president, Park outlawed criticism of his regime and condemned some dissenters to death. During his 18-year regime, Park was continually confronted by dissent and social tumult until his assassination in 1979.

Chang and Gi-Wook Shin, director of Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, together have studied the anti-Park movement, examining nearly 5,000 acts of protest and repression, and tracking movement diversity, protest tactics and intergroup solidarity.

Protests including at least two social groups — laborers, students, journalists, Christian activists and politicians — rose from around 3% of all demonstrations in 1970 to nearly 20% in 1977, despite an increasingly effective police crackdown, according to the two professors.

In 1974, half of all protest events issued some kind of intergroup solidarity statement — a show of support for other dissident communities.

“Today, we might think about specific contemporary movements to see how they are being shaped by repression and how they are also shaping the repressive agents acting against them,” Chang said in an email, commenting on current social movements in the United States.

The Black Lives Matter movement in U.S. has evolved — and sparked a backlash.

Just as protest movements in South Korea adapted, broadened and triggered backlash, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has evolved, broadening its aims while motivating opponents, Chang noted.

“The expansion of BLM goals and frames motivated different conservative elements in American society — politicians, militia groups, general conservative public, etc. — to come together to push back on what is now the police reform movement,” Chang said.

“As police forces then went on to repress BLM protests, the movement began calling for fundamental reforms of the police industry as a whole. Thus, police repression of protests — and not just the police brutality against black persons — triggered the development of the movement’s goals and frames.”

Now, as then, increased repression has induced protesters to broaden their goals. In South Korea, student protesters initially opposed Park’s normalization treaty with Japan in 1965. But after years of repression, the protest movement took aim at Park’s reign.

“Distinct from the protest cycles in the 1960s … the democracy movement that emerged in the 1970s targeted the authoritarian structure of Park’s government,” Chang writes in his book.

Social movements can evolve and adapt.

Chang and Shin concluded their project by noting that the success of a movement can be measured not only in numbers of people but in intergroup solidarity and tactical adaptation. “There are various ways to measure ‘intensity,’ and the number of participants and types of tactics employed are just two of the ways,” they wrote.

What about the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, hoping to overturn the election of Joe Biden to the presidency?

A crackdown by online platforms since the insurrection has spurred some militia groups to find new social media outlets for organizing. In South Korea, students put out covert publications as their movement moved underground. South Korean Christians and workers used underground networks to disseminate anti-government literature.

The patterns of protest in the Park Chung-hee era offer a word of caution for those attempting to suppress far-right extremism, but also some hope for activists: Social movements don’t necessarily die, but can evolve and adapt.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What was “the Miracle on the Han River”?
  2. How did protest movements in South Korea evolve in the 1960s and 1970s?
  3. Why does the author say there are similarities between social movements in South Korea in the 1960s and 19709s, and those in the United States today?
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Christina MacCorkle is a U.S. citizen who grew up in China. She is in her third year at The Thacher School in California, and her favorite subjects are History, English and Studio Art. Outside of the classroom, she enjoys dance and volleyball. After high school, she hopes to study Political Science or foreign policy — something that “casts a critical eye on contemporary events.”

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