Yongusil 62: Contentious Politics on the Korean Peninsula, a Workshop at the University of Toronto

By | March 24, 2015 | No Comments

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The contentious struggle on the peninsula. | Image: Pedrosimones7

The developmental trajectories of North and South Korea have shaped the contours of each country’s contentious political environment. In the contentious atmosphere of an on-going labor dispute, the Comparative Politics Student Group (CPSG) and the Centre for the Study of Korea at the University of Toronto hosted a workshop on the latest work on contentious politics in both Koreas. The workshop, moderated by Sino-NK Managing Editor Steven Denney, took place at the Worker’s Action Center on Sunday, March 8. There were two groups and four presenters, each group representing one side of the 38th.

Sino-NK’s own Dr. Adam Cathcart and Christopher Green presented their work on contentious politics in North Korea during the Kim Jong-un era. The research represents a portion of the output for an Academy of Korean Studies (AKS) competitive research grant.

Using material from a co-authored piece, Green presented on the case of “re-defector” press conferences convened in Pyongyang between 2011 and 2013 to illustrate how the party-state employs an active information management strategy to buttress its rule. Building upon the contemporary “politics of authoritarianism” literature and the concept of governmentality, the research utilizes Thomas Callaghy’s “domain consensus” as a framework to codify the reciprocal communicative process by which the party-state interacts with the citizenry. The domain consensus framework sub-divides authoritarian control into a trifurcated framework of ideal types: coercive, utilitarian, and normative. The presentation, and the research more generally, focused on the third of these—the normative. As such, it explores the information management strategy used to promote a consensus on expectations of life inside and outside North Korea.

Using a similar theoretical approach, Cathcart presented to the workshop audience the idea that the all-female performance group in North Korea, known as the Moranbong Band, is a theatrical expression of the state’s own view of itself. Further, Cathcart explained how the band articulates the boundaries of acceptable behavior. In other words, the Moranbong Band aids in the establishment of a “reciprocity of expectations” between the state and the citizenry.

Both Cathcart and Green introduced data from structured interviews conducted with North Korean defectors (as part of fieldwork conducted in South Korea during the summer of 2014) to support their theoretically-driven findings; while limited (due to small sample size), they were able to show how information is channeled from the top-down is consumed and reproduced from the bottom-up.

Two professors from the University of Toronto, Drs. Jennifer Chun and Judy Han, jointly presented their latest collaborative work on cultures of protest in the South Korean labor movement. Chun and Han address questions, such as: Why do workers choose to express their collective defiance to unjust labor practices through corporeal resistance and bodily sacrifice? What do such protest performances reveal about the expectations and aspirations of dissenting political subjects in post-authoritarian South Korea?

The presentation focused on acts of dramatic resistance and solidarity as a mainstay in South Korea’s public landscape, especially among the many precariously-employed workers in the country. Chun and Hand argue that, whether opposing the labor repression of authoritarian industrialization or the market-driven policies of neoliberal development, workers and their advocates have relied on an array of protest acts to challenge the legitimacy of ruling authorities — from workplace strikes and occupations to hunger strikes and worker suicides. While many labor and social movement scholars have examined the instrumental, organizational and structural factors that promote worker collective action, much less attention has been paid to the affective, temporal and spatial dimensions of workers’ protest politics.

To better understand the cultural dimensions of worker protests, their presentation examined a new pattern of popular contention in Korean workers’ already radical repertoire of collective action: the prolonged embodiment of emotional, physical, and financial hardship by precariously-employed workers. In particular, they considered forms of protest with strong expressive elements: religious and spiritual rituals such as head shaving ceremonies, fasting, and the Buddhist atonement ritual samboilbae (삼보일배; lit. “three steps and a bow”) as well as long-term occupations of symbolic sites such as construction cranes, church bell towers, and building rooftops. By examining how workers dramatize precarity, Chun and Han seek to develop a more systematic analysis of the relationship between the cultural politics of injustice and the changing world of work and employment under neoliberal developmental regimes.

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