Free to be Controlled: Press and Protest under Park Chung-hee
South Korean President Park Chung-hee, centre, via Korea Joongang Daily.
Sino-NK has previously discussed various aspects of Park Chung Hee’s life and rule, from the origins of militarism in South Korea to the complex legacy of his regime and the way it is remembered. In this article, Oscar Stones shifts the focus to the cultural sphere, reviewing two recent articles from Korean Studies which examine conceptions of freedom, popular consent, and the role of the media and music in protest discourse. — Luke Thrumble, Managing Editor
In a modern political context, nostalgia towards authoritarian regimes has the potential to tip the scales against democracy. This is therefore an appropriate time to examine the complex legacy of the Park Chung-hee era, and Park’s historical relationship with South Korean public opinion. Simultaneously regarded as a populist and an authoritarian, Park undertook both cultural and political projects as a means of bridging the gap between his regime and public opinion, and those projects form a means of understanding his legacy.
Jungyoung Kim recently completed a PhD in Communication and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Kim’s recent examination of notions of freedom under Park Chung-hee’s early regime provides meaningful discussion of the role of popular consent in the establishment of the dictatorship but does not entirely succeed at proving the regime’s reliance on consent. This essay, however, places the communication scholar’s work in conjunction with Pil Ho Kim, whose examination of changes in protest music from 1960 to 1965 allows a historiographically significant perspective to emerges in which shifting dynamics in freedom discourse, mass participation and popular protest movements lead us directly to the Yushin period. Yushin is known as a period of constitutional reform in which Park’s regime effectively abandoned any illusion of democracy in favour of wholesale authoritarianism, but these articles show that scholars remain more than capable of finding nuance in analysing the prelude to the Yushin system.
Jungyoung Kim sifts roughly 900 newspaper articles from three contemporary publications to develop an impressively sourced exploration of media control in Park’s Korea. Kim explains, unsurprisingly, that media discourse on freedom centred on the concept of ‘anticommunism.’ However, what is more novel is that media in the Park Chung-hee era also dwelled on ‘liberation from wrongful government’ as well as the irresponsibility of the ‘western lifestyle’, suggesting that Park’s government leveraged these ideas to create a uniquely South Korean notion of freedom (p. 263). Using these examples alongside secondary literature on consensual dictatorship, Kim concludes that ‘Park summoned mass participation’ by ‘utilizing the notion of South Korea’s own ideal of freedom’, relying heavily on Jie-Hyun Lim’s (2005) argument that ‘modern dictatorship presupposes the support of the masses’ (p. 279). Christopher Green has used an analogue framework of ‘domain consensus’ in his analysis of the North Korean dictatorship.
Despite the impressive breadth of the evidence, Kim’s use of primary material does not always warrant the conclusions which are drawn from it, either because it overlooks important perspectives or contradicts itself. Kim’s fundamental argument, that ‘Park’s regime constructed the notion of South Korea’s “good” freedom by interweaving’ three notions of the concept, puts forward little evidence that the regime used (or even accepted) ‘liberation from undue government’ as a tenet of Korean freedom (p. 276), focussing almost exclusively on the perspective of individuals resisting Park’s constitutional reforms and media control.
Student protest at Chung-Ang University, June 1964, via Wikiwand.
The sole piece of evidence which Kim does provide for the regime’s use of liberation in constructing their rhetoric on freedom is a speech in which Park himself justifies abandoning the media’s ‘fight against dictatorship’ in favour of modernisation (pp. 276-77). With Park’s focus on modernisation such examples better demonstrate the regime’s rhetoric regarding ‘national salvation’, which Young Jak Kim suggests used economic and cultural progress to justify delaying principles of democracy rather than openly embracing them.
Pil Ho Kim takes a different, innovative approach to a similar topic, examining changes in the protest music of the 1960s to understand the development of protester opinions between Syngman Rhee’s and Park Chung-hee’s regimes. To this end, Kim incorporates primary material consisting predominantly of contemporary newspaper references to protest songs, with a few oral histories and personal memoirs. This work connects to the growing field of political musicology on the Korean peninsula, ranging from Hannah Chang’s exciting work at Sheffield, Alexandra Leonzini and Peter Moody’s innovative work in Korean Studies, or Moranbong Band analysis by Pekka Korhonen and others here on SinoNK.
Bolstering his 2010 analysis of the Park regime’s shift from embracing Korean pop music’s ‘military flavour’ to viewing it as a form of dissent, Kim uses protest songs to argue that public support for the regime declined between 1961 and 1964 (pp. 120-22). Pointing to the incorporation of Park’s ideas in songs (such as saying ‘Protest doesn’t equal communism’ in ‘Tear-gas Shell Song’), Kim highlights both protesters’ confrontation with the ‘authority undermining the anti-colonial tenet of Korean nationalism’ and their fear of ‘red-baiting’ (pp. 123-24). This is a perspective supported by scholars such as Myung-Ji Yang, who points out the multi-faceted use of anti-communism in the regime, working both to suppress dissent and mobilise action.
While Pil Ho Kim’s arguments are certainly interesting, and are not entirely without a historiographical base, his conclusions sometimes bare little more than a speculatory link to his evidence. Kim’s exploration of the ‘anti-colonial roots of Children’s Day’ and the damning implication of its use by child protesters, for example, is based entirely on the assumption that the protest song was incorrectly identified at the time. Similarly, given the relative in-frequency with which individual songs appear in his data (peaking at thirteen, with the vast majority appearing only twice), it is difficult to take his assertion that songs were ‘indispensable’ in Korean street protests at face value (p. 113, p. 115, p. 122). At times political musicology has a tendency to overclaim music’s centrality to government campaigns or social movements – music hardly was the primary driver of Chinese anti-American nationalism during the Korean War, for example. Prevalence does not always equate to centrality of influence.
Despite these flaws, however, both articles reviewed here prove useful additions to the historiography on democratisation in Korea, especially when considered together. Both works build directly on that of Charles Kim, who posits the Park regime assimilated, manipulated and abandoned the ideological doctrine of student protesters between 1960 and 1965. Pil Ho Kim, specifically, uses this framework to point to the aftermath of the 6.3 uprising (national student protests against the normalisation of relations with Japa) as the beginning of a change in both protest organisation and cultural expressions of resistance in the years following.
Taken together, Jungyoung Kim and Pil Ho Kim’s new articles in Korean Studies construct a nuanced history using mass participation, protest and freedom discourse to explain the perfect ideological storm which would develop once the new working class and student vanguards found ‘their own voices’ (p. 128). Their work builds upon and aligns with both Dong-Choon Kim’s understanding that Park’s young political opponents in the period would go on to important positions in modern left-wing politics, and Myung Ji Yang’s that Park’s experiences in this time led directly to the establishment of the Yushin government.
Today, the Yushin era is history, but the complexities of public opinion and its relationship to the state remain in flux. The eruptions of more recent political changes in South Korea can locate roots in the 1960s. More globally, in this period of uncertainty and transition, South Korea’s studies of its authoritarian past might actually aid in dimming down the nostalgia for more repressive eras and methods of governance.
Kim, Jungyoung. “Cultivating Freedom in South Korea: Media Discourse on Chayu during the Early Park Chung-hee Period”, Korean Studies 46 (2022): 259-293. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/ks.2022.0010
Kim, Pil Ho. “Songs of the Multitude: The April Revolution, the 6.3 Uprising, and South Korea’s Protest Music of the 1960s”, Korean Studies 46 (2022): 107-134. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/ks.2022.0005
Oscar Stones is a final year BA History student at the University of Leeds. Oscar has a particular interest in the political ramifications of Korean nationalism and historical memory, with specific focus on the impact of these issues on Korea’s relationship with Japan.
 WooJin Kang, “Democratic Performance and Park Chung-hee Nostalgia in Korean Democracy”, Asian Perspective 40, no. 1 (2016): 72. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44074769
 Jie-Hyun Lim, “Historiographical Perspectives on ‘Mass Dictatorship’”, Totalitarian Movements and Political Regions 6, no. 3 (2005): 325. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14690760500317669
 Young Jak Kim, “Park Chung Hee’s Governing Ideas: Impact on National Consciousness and Identity,” in Reassessing the Park Chung Hee Era 1961-1979: Development, Political Thought, Democracy, and Cultural Influence, ed. Hyung-a Kim and Clark Sorensen (London: University of Washington Press, 2011): 94-5.
 Pil Ho Kim and Hyunjoon Shin, “The Birth of “Rok”: Cultural Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Glocalization of Rock Music in South Korea, 1964–1975”, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 18, no. 1 (2010): 209. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-2009-028
 Myung-Ji Yang, “What Sustains Authoritarianism? From State-Based Hegemony to Class-Based Hegemony During the Park Chung Hee Regime in South Korea”, Working USA 9, no. 4 (2006): 430-432. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-4580.2006.00126.x
 Charles Kim, Youth for Nation: Culture and Protest in Cold War South Korea (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2017), 3-6
 Dong-Choon Kim, “The great upsurge of South Korea’s social movements in the 1960s”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 7, no. 4 (2006): 628-629. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14649370600983071 and Yang, Authoritarianism: 426