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Renegade Region or Symbol of New Nation?—Regionalism and Ethnic Nationalism during the South Korean Democratization

October 2004

Jong-Il Park Ph. D. Candidate Department of Sociology University of California, Los Angeles

Regionalism and Nationalism in Question

Coexistence of strong nationalism and strong regionalism within single nation-state

could be considered as an anomaly. Conventional understanding goes that strong

nationalism destroys regional and ethnic movements within the nation-state territory.

Modernist theory of nationalism unequivocally suggests that parochial identities are

destined to wither away as the society cross the threshold of modern nation building

(Anderson; Geller; Deutsche). Liberal democratic theory, from quite a different

theoretical tradition, also insinuates that democratization and destruction of local

identities go hand in hand (Huntington; Diamond). The point is clear: strong regional or

ethnic movements, by challenging the nation as an ultimate unit of political decision

making, are likely to clash with nationalist movement. In other words, on its flip side, a

successful campaign of nation-state building exterminates intra-national claims of

political identity.

In a similar vein, from a historical perspective, the prevalence of intra-national

political identity such as regional one in the putatively mono-ethnic Korea is quite

peculiar considering that it is widely recognized among researchers that nationalist

discourses in the East Asia in general and Korea in particular are dominated by states (see

Duara for the East Asia; Shin et al 1999 for Korea). Then, would this be an aberration in

the long historical moments in Korea? Or could it be a tell-tale sign of challenge of non-

official nationalism that might brings in sweeping changes in nationalist discourse in


Furthermore, the South Korean story presents us a challenging case study as it differs

from other cases of regional and ethnic conflict (even among the cases of nation-state

with strong ethnic nature and stable democracy 1 ) in that the antagonistic regions, both the

advantaged and the disadvantaged, did not make any claim of regional autonomy or

secession. Although this point might raise a familiar objection from the conventional

understanding of mono-ethnic Korean nationalism 2 , I think it is crucial to ask why it did

not happen. Moreover, the claims of single ethnic nation should not be accepted at face

value in the tradition of social constructivist approach which is widely accepted in social

science today. 3

Given these general and historically specific points of interests, I specifically ask the

following two sets of questions in the present study. First, does national identity

essentially control development of regional identity? Under what circumstances, could a

regional identity be a base of, or obstacle to, national identity? Second, more specifically,

in the face of state domination of nationalist discourse, while the regional schism within

the nation is ever growing, how did the democracy movement leaders and state elite react

to the apparent source of regional conflict in hand?

In the process of answering the questions above, I visit two historical junctures of

South Korean political history. First, I focus my attention on developmentalism and

increasing regional gap during the Park Chung-Hee era (1961-79). The Park’s version of

nationalism is characterized as ‘modernization of fatherland’ with numerous state

initiated development projects around the country but at the same time it increased the

gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged regions. Increasingly in the

  • 1 Emergence of the Northern League in Italy could be a comparable case in this sense. The affluent north of Italy formed a political entity that even possesses a new state name, Padania, and clearly has some secessionist motives. See Agnew for detail.

  • 2 The most sacred credo of Korean history is mono-ethnic integrity of the nation whose role in the conventional understanding of Korean history is undeniable. Yet, how the discourse is constructed and how it works in politics should be the object discussion.

  • 3 See Smith (1998) for distinction between constructivism (or modernism) and primordialism.

disadvantaged region, people came to realize that they are not becoming equal partners in

this national project and thus transformed into second class citizens of the national

community. From the benefit of hindsight, quite ironically, the era of national control and

integration, through economic incentives and socio-political surveillance, created and

intensified a hierarchical regional structure within the “single ethnic” nation.

Second, I examine socio-political contention surrounding the interpretation of the

Kwangju Uprising and the following development. It is my understanding that the

regional struggle in the 80s and 90s has been a dispute between the two stories:

government version of regional rebellion and parochialism vs. movement activist version

of Kwangju as “center of new nation.” Among movement intellectuals it is widely

adopted that the Kwangju Uprising provides a breeding ground for the new Korean

national identity. At the same time, there were active engagements of the state elite to

frame and manipulate the regional struggle as “betrayal of national unity” and as

conspiratorial move to dismantle the legitimate national government. I will show that

regional movement elites were keenly aware of the contentious nature of regional identity

within the nationalist discourse and thus became very cautious about making any

regionalist claims. They feared that any suggestion of regional discontent would provide

fertile ground for state denunciation and repudiation in reference to national unity. As a

result, instead of presenting the issue right in front, they had to reprioritize the regionalist

claims within the demands of democracy movement. Also, they formulated the new

national identity epitomized by the regional struggle and sacrifice.

Putting all together, we may reach an understanding on why the Korean regionalism

takes the current form of antagonism which is quite unique in comparative historical

perspective—The most noticeable trait is that the Korean form of regional struggle

evolves around the question of “who controls the state” while not addressing the issues of

regional autonomy and not questioning the meaning of region within the nation-state.

State domination of the ethnic nationalism has much to do with the answer.

Contested Identity of Nation and Region

Any inquiry of relationship between nationalism and regionalism should begin with

the “modernist theory” 4 of nationalism. The most dominant theory in the study of

nationalism, it depicts nationalism as a new integrating identity that makes regional or

parochial identities obsolete. Gellner (1983) and Deutsch (1961) provide good starting

points: Transition from agrarian to industrial society, Gellner argues, brought in

homogeneity among population and egalitarianism in society. Industrial society,

characterized by unprecedented level of division of labor, needs culturally/linguistically

homogenized individuals so that they are able to “communicate contextlessly and with

precision” (Gellner: 141) with all others. Consequently, earlier “relational” identities,

linked to family, clan, and locality tend to decline, and new ‘categorical’ 5 identities,

which link us to a multitude of others in nationality, take on more and more importance.

Deutsch’s notion of new communication in industrial society demonstrates a similar

point: inequality between different groups within single country has been diminished and

hierarchical order has been substituted by horizontal network. The sense of belonging to a

nation regardless of their location in the society promoted democratic ideals.

  • 4 I use the conventional label of the “modernist theory” used by many others. See Smith (1998) and Brubaker (1998) for this classification.

  • 5 Distinction between the “relational” and “categorical” identities is adopted from the Calhoun’s analysis (1997: 29).

From this perspective, the recent Korean regionalist conflict can be puzzling. It came

a while after liberation, and industrialization, and strong nationalism, and regionalism

coexisted during democratization. Korean democratization was accompanied by an ethnic

version of nationalism and severe regional struggle. Anti-Americanism proved to be a

driving force of democratization and unprecedented regional conflict became salient.

Regional struggle, initiated by the 1980 massacre in Cholla, the southwestern region, and

strengthened by struggle of bureaucratic control, characterized the whole process of

democratic transition.

Similar criticism can be presented against the “liberal democracy theory.” The

proponents of this theory argue that ethnic and/or regional identity and nationalism are

incompatible: If there is a strong and stable nation-state, regionalism disappears; where

regional or ethnic identity dominates, there is little chance for nation-state building. This

assessment often expressed in a form that democracy is ‘rational’ and ‘good’ while

regional/ethnic identity is ‘irrational’ and ‘evil.’ Fukuyama (1992) illustrates this line of

reasoning that in the post cold war era “irrational nationalism does not present a viable

alternative to democracy.” In theories of democracy, variants of regional/ethnic identity

are not considered as major players of democratic transition. It is very clear in arguing

that cultural change is a condition for democracy, and nationalism or other sub-national

identity should be obsolete to make a favorable condition for democracy. Otherwise, they

are often manipulated by authoritarian or totalitarian regime (Huntington: 56). Any

positive role of regionalism or even nationalism in democratization is denied. Simply put,

liberal theorists in general emphasize that regional or ethnic division may affect chances

of democracy where it put the unity of the nation into question. It can be a good

explanation of why deeply divided societies have difficulty in achieving democracy. Yet,

they do not provide an answer to why regional or ethnic struggles emerged (and re-

emerged) in modern politics and why regional conflicts exploded during the democratic

transition in Korea for instance. Nation Region (Ethnicity) City / Neighborhood
transition in Korea for instance.
City / Neighborhood

<Figure 1> Hierarchy of Identity

The brief review of the two theoretical traditions reveals that they are ill-equipped to

deal with the dynamic interaction between the nationalism and regionalism within a

nation-state. The biggest failure of the theories is that they assume rigidly established

levels of identity (see Figure 1): regional under the guideline of national, and

city/neighborhood under region. In this hierarchy of identities, national identity always

possesses supremacy. Regional identity as a sub-national one might thrive or wither away

depending on the congruency with the grand identity of nation. It is rarely questioned

how regional is imagined within the framework of nationalism and how regional identity

operate in connection with national identity. Simply put, there is no serious attempt to

explain how regional identity engages with national identity in the political arena.

Nation-State System Nationalism (T1, T2, …) Racial Regionalism Identity <Figure 2> Contested Construction of Nation and
(T1, T2, …)
<Figure 2> Contested Construction of Nation and Nationalism 6

The shortcoming of the theories becomes more evident when we understand

nationalism as a contested identity, not as a linear, unitary, evolving entity. It is more

accurate to say that “nation and national identity is historically contingent, context-

driven, and defined and redefined in negotiation and transaction” (Jenkins 1997: 143). It

is quite true that the history of East Asia does not exhibit much evidence of contested

nature of national identity due to state domination of nationalism discourse. 7 Yet, at the

same time, recent literature in the East Asian studies challenges the static view of

6 The <Fugure 2> shows how nationalism in a society is constructed. Especially in Korea, factors such as racial identity and nation-state system had enormous influence on the construction of Korean nationalism and national identity (for those factors see Schmid; Shin & Robinson). Regionalism could be another factor, I propose. 7 For state domination of national history in East Asia, especially in China and Korea, see Duara (1995;


national identity. Many scholars demonstrated that there are ample evidences that refute

determinist view of Japanese national identity and peculiarity of Japaneseness (see

Gluck; Vlastos). Multiple scenarios of constructing Chinese national identity are also

well documented (see Duara; Friedman). This line of reasoning leads us to a modest goal

of this study: examination of the conventionally understood sub-national identities, such

as kinship, regional, and ethnic identities, in the field of politics, might show how nation

and nationalism work within a nation-state. Our case study of the regionalism in South

Korea may show just that.

Backdrop: State Domination of Ethnic Nationalism and Growing Regional

Disparity through 1960s and 70s.

During the Park Chung-Hee regime, nationalist discourse was shaped mainly through

confrontations with the North and occasionally through the Japanese and the US

influence on the politics of the Korea peninsular. The first consequence of the “two-state

one-nation” confrontation was that any discussion on the unification of the nation was not

allowed in the civil society. People who attempted to express their opinion on unification

issue different from the state version were easily prosecuted and incarcerated. Cho Bong

Am during the Syngman Rhee regime and Chang Chun Ha during the Park regime are

well known examples of how state domination eliminated the challenging voices.

Closer observation of the confrontation of the two states reveals that both produced

very similar outcomes in nationalist discourse. First of all, both Kim Il Sung and Park

Chung-Hee uphold the purity and unity of the ethnic nation. (Shin et al.) Mythical

common ancestor was equally emphasized in the South and the North. More importantly,

they both charged the other as traitors of national community and consistently stressed

the need for reunification. Through this intra-national confrontation between the two

states, it is argued that the ethnic nature of Koran nationalism is further strengthened

(Shin et al.)

Shifting our attention to South Korea, the relationship between nation and region

during the Park era was somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, the regime considerably

increased the effort to integrate different communities of the country into a unified

nation. It was done through the state initiated development plan around the country side,

the Saemaeul Movement, and increased surveillance through secret service agents. On

the other hand, economic disparity within the nation resulted in growing regional schism.

As it is well known in the development studies, the take off of Korean national economy

in the 1960s is caused by deliberate plan economy of central government that distributed

the available foreign capital to strategic sites of industrialization for export economy.

Although the ‘plan economy’ is highly praised in developmental studies literature

(Amsden), it also exposed the uneven nature of capitalist development. Mainly the

planned economic development showed that the distribution of the resources and benefits

of the growth process have been disproportionately distributed between regions.

Economic disparity between Kyongsang and Cholla province has been pointed out the

most significant differences. According to Chon (1992), total manufacturing employment

has grown by three or four times in Cholla provinces, while it is recorded ten-fold

increase in Kyongsang region. From 1960 to 1990, population change by region attests

the declining fortune of Cholla region. While it has about 25 percent of the total national

population in 1960, the proportion in the national population dropped to 11.7% of the

total. Millions of Cholla resident moved out of the region in search of industrial jobs in

major cities in other region while the region remained as agricultural center of the nation.

In political sphere, the power of regional units decreased considerably while the

central government increased the administrative power around the nation. An important

political event in the era was dismissal of regional assembly by the Park regime. Upon

acquisition of political power through military coup, Park dismissed the regional

assembly in the name of national security and protection of the nation from the chaotic

political process. The regional assembly was one of a few remaining building blocks of

the burgeoning democracy. Also noted was the increased penetration of state

administrative power around the country. During the Park regime, it is noted that the

number of government employees were typically increased by three times. Counting and

categorizing as modern nation-state function, including national household registration

and upgraded census activities, was completely carried out in the Park era.

It is widely noted that the regional gap reached a level of social conflict during the

transition to democracy. Not only political parties and bureaucracy, but also employment

opportunities and marriage relations were founded regionalized. Some accuse that many

chaeb ls openly refused to hire people from Cholla region in the late 1980s (Janelli

total. Millions of Cholla resident moved out of the region in search of industrial jobs in

1993). Studies show that there are barriers for inter-regional marriages (Kim 1987) and

inequality in the labor market in the 1980s for people from Cholla region (Yu 1990).

In addition to growing regional gap, we want to point out the lack of territorial

integration in the Korean national discourse. Even when it is compared to other ethnically

based nations, including Japan and Germany, Korean nation building lacks any

experience of integrating the frontier region. Japan had to incorporate Okinawa and

Hokkiado, politically and culturally, when it prepared to emerge as a nation-state in the

late last century (Sato). German provinces in the turn of the century had to form a federal

republic to situate themselves between the empires and nation-states (Applegate). Even

the Chinese experience shows that there was a serious discussion on federalism based on

provincial autonomy before it settled with the centralized political order (Duara 1995).

Yet, the modern Korean nation building lacked any territorial re-alignment. 8 Therefore, it

has never been discussed how territorial (“regional” or “provincial” in this context)

integration works in national identity in the Korean case.

Contentious Region: Renegade Region or Symbol of New Nation?

The Kwangju Uprising in 1980 has been a crucial moment in South Korean history,

continued through controversial interpretations and contestation later on and in the

debates of Korean regionalism as well as the democracy movement in the 1980s and 90s.

The uprising began as a pro-democracy protest by a group of students in the city of

Kwangju in South Cholla province, the most economically disadvantaged region in South

Korea. But it quickly became a mass uprising as citizens from all walks of life joined the

protesters after witnessing brutal suppressions by military forces including special force

and paratroopers. 9 Unexpectedly, the inclusion of ordinary citizens in the uprising

provided a new momentum and it eventually lasted over nine days. At the same time,

changing leadership during the struggle and various participants, even long after the

Uprising, made the nature of the Uprising a controversial topic for researchers, political

activists, and government officials.

8 The unification issue and irredentism in Manchuria might force the realignment of territory in the national imagining in the future. But there is no chance of territorial realignment until now. 9 For historical account of the Uprising written by participants, see Lee 1999.

Defining the exact nature of the Uprising has been the task of many social scientists

and movement activists in South Korea, but not exactly the goal of this research. For the

sake of this research, I only identify several versions of interpreting the Uprising by

different groups of the society. 10 First, it was proclaimed as a mass democracy movement

demanding democratic reforms, including presidential election and dismissal of martial

law regime. Part of the student leaders and movement intellectuals originally produced

this interpretation and after the successful transition to democracy it became an official

state version of the history 11 . Second, increased regional disparity during the Park regime

and rumors of regional antagonism during the Uprising provided a catalyst for the mass

uprising. We identify this factor as “regional conflict version.” Immediately following the

uprising, this version of the interpretation became a base of governmental propaganda on

the Uprising—they preferred to call it a riot instead of uprising from the beginning.

According to the regime, the riot was initiated by infiltrators from the communist North

and expanded through the participation of thugs and gangs among the citizenry, the

impure elements 12 of the national community. It was a challenge to our nation-state, they

argue, and had to be suppressed militarily in order to protect the national community.

Third, it is called a “class struggle” by some movement intellectuals and student leaders.

Especially in the later period of the Uprising, when lower class participants became

staunchest supporters of armed struggle, they claim, the movement became a

quintessential class conflict, the haves vs. the have-nots.

  • 10 See 5.18 Minjung Hangjaengsa [History of the May 18th People’s Uprising] for different views on the Uprising.

  • 11 After the 1992 presidential election, emergence of new civilian government, new recognition of the Uprising started. Discussion in this paper focus on 1980 through 1992.

  • 12 The term ‘impure elements’ became a often used one for the government version (see KOMS for government issued documents), meaning that the participants are impure elements of the society and nation. It is a rhetoric reminiscent of “pure blood line nation” proclaimed by the state elite and nationalist historians.

Undeniably there were many causes, demands, and groups involved in the Uprising.

It would be wise to conclude that we could find some elements of the all three

interpretations above. Instead of judging the truthfulness of the claims, my sole objective

in the study is to identify how different groups fought to justify their version of the

interpretation. Especially, I focus on how they played out during the political struggle in

the context of national and regionalist claims.

First, the state elite picked up the regionalist claims and discontent from the Uprising

participants and manipulated them to support their “regional rebellion” theory. It was a

relentless effort to create a contrast between national unity and regional discontent. In the

first broadcasted message to the nation after the outbreak of the Uprising, the commander

in chief under the martial law, General Yi Hi Sung provided a rationale for military


“As commander in chief under the martial law, I have a solemn

responsibility to protect the safety of state, keep the livelihood of the nation, and

maintain social order. To the citizens of Kwangju, I plead your traditional

patriotism to wisely resolve the current tragic situation with sensibility and self-


The reason why the situation developed into the current state is that a

number of impure elements from other regions and communist infiltrators from

the North moved into your region in order to escalate the event into an extreme

situation. They spread malicious rumors, lead destruction of the public facilities,

and create arsons and lootings in order to incite regional sentiments and create

lawlessness. The actions of the impure elements reached the level of armed

struggle. It is self-evident that the incident will only cause destructive results for

our state [and] nation [KOMS: 58].”

It is very clear from the statement that the military juntas wanted to depict the

Uprising as ‘regional discontent’ and the leaders as ‘impure’ elements of the national

community. In numerous other statements after the Uprising, the state elite frequently

described the participants of the Uprising as sympathizers of and infiltrators from the

communist North 13 . The labeling is intended to marginalize them from the legitimate

community of the Korean nation.

Typically, in the statement above, the “state nation” is mentioned as a seamless

inseparable unit—there is no distinction between the state and nation. 14 Yet, it is not

uncommon to find a political statement in Korea, especially during the Park regime,

which includes the term “state nation”. It suggests both that there was no clear distinction

between the two historically and that the regime made a persistent efforts to equate the

state and nation to promote their legitimacy vis-à-vis the communist North Korea (see

Shin et al). At the same time, the contrast between the terms ‘state-nation’ and ‘region” is

very clear in the statement. Without doubt, the region is a part of the “state nation” and

there is an indication that the region as a sub unit ought to obey the rule of the state and

nation. The term “regional sentiment”, which became an omnipresent but ‘disgraceful’

term in the South Korean politics after the Uprising, is deliberately used to emphasize the

parochial and irrational nature of the Uprising as opposed to the harmonious familial

13 There were several rumors of North Korean spies in the Uprising but none of them were independently verified during or after the Uprising. See KOMS for interviews of participants. 14 Walker Connor (1994) reminds us that the patriotism (loyalty to state) and nationalism (loyalty to national group) tend to blur into a seamless whole for people who possess their own ethnically homogenous nation-state such as Japanese and Germans (196). For (South) Koreans, however, situated in a position to clearly recognize imperfect representation of nation through the two states, the infusion of ‘state and nation’ is a obvious political shibboleth than anywhere else.

nation. It is no coincidence that the term “regional sentiment” is vehemently denied by

the movement leaders as they tried to overcome the label of “renegade region”

Rumors during the Uprising served well for the regime’s purpose of de-

legitimatizing the movement. Particularly the rumors of regional background of the

paratroopers, which had played a significant role in strengthening indignation among the

citizenry of Kwangju 15 , became a target of the government attack. They argued that a few

‘impure elements’ of the society rabble-roused the ordinary citizens. In reaction to brutal

suppression of the army, residents of Kwnagju sought to explanation of their sheer

brutality and some picked up the verbal cue of the soldiers and concluded that they are all

from the rival region of Kyongsang. It immediately became a powerful message mainly

due to the experience of regional discrimination during the Park regime and the

predominant regional background of the military leaders. 16 On the other hand, the rumor

served particularly well for the military juntas because the regime wanted to show that

the movement is for the egoistic regional gain at the sacrifice of the national unity and

security. The participants were parochial, irrational, and marginal members of the nation,

they claimed in the statement. The rumors also served well in showing the irrationality of

the mass during the Uprising. Rumors of regional background of soldiers and looting of

trucks from other regions listed to show irrationality of the mobs in Kwangju. Over all

the central message of the government propaganda was that the parochial regional

identity in opposition to the national unity should be condemned and punished.

  • 15 In numerous interviews of the movement participants compiled in the KOMS indicate that the citizens of Kwangju believed the rumor in the fear of brutal suppression and isolation from the outside. Truthfulness of the rumor is another question and there is no need to address this issue in this paper. In addition, it is well known that the regional background of the generals were largely Kyongsang, over 60%.

  • 16 In the study ethnic violence, Kuran argues that reaching to a tipping point may exponentially increase the solidarity of ethnic group. The rumor in the Uprising might provide a tipping point in our view.

Even though the term “regional sentiment” is a neologism of the 1980s it was the

same old tactic used by the dictators since the Korean War to maintain the domination of

nationalist discourse. The familiar label of ‘communist rebels,’ the most popular political

repertoire of dictators Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-Hee against the opponents, was

substituted by rabble-rousers of “regional sentiments.” The similarity between the two

can be verified by the identical effect of castigating the members of the nation as anti-

national and even as “national enemy”. It is especially effective when the nationalist

discourse is dominated by state and the type of nationalism is ethnic and organic.

In reaction to the government propaganda, the movement intellectuals, wittingly or

unwittingly, tried to take advantage of nationalist discourse for their own. It was a very

predictable response considering that the nation and nationalism occupy the supreme

position in Korean politics. Not only the movement leader but also ordinary citizens

expressed their anger by employing the nationalist rhetoric. Many people expressed that

the soldiers are not members of their nation—the strongest political statement in Korean


“I saw a dead body in front of the theater. People said that he was beaten to death

by paratroopers. While watching it, it came to my mind ‘how could they do this to the

people of the same nation’ [KOMS: 285]”.

“We cannot forgive the criminals who disobeyed the history and killed our nation.

In the name of nation and in the name of history we have to execute them. We have

never executed the collaborators and anti-nationals after the liberation. It is clearly

wrong [KOMS: 915]”.

Catholic priest Kim Sung Yong, who played an intermediary role in bringing the

Uprising to a close, pleaded a peaceful solution to the Army generals,

“Paratroopers treated us like animals. They dragged us on the dirt as if we were

animals. They beat us, stabbed us, and shot us. How do we solve this incident? You

called us as ‘thugs and gangs’ and we will remain as ‘thugs and gangs’ when it is over.

All of us in Cholla will be ‘thugs and gangs’ and our sons and daughters will remain so.

When outsiders ask us where we are from, we people of Cholla will be perceived as

‘thugs and gangs’ [KOMS: 106]”.

In a similar vein, many drew a comparison between the paratrooper and Japanese

cops and soldiers during the colonial rule in order to disgrace them as illegitimate

members of the Korean nation.

“During the 36 years of Japanese rule, we the oppressed nation fought against them

without any weapons in hand. When our soldiers, who are supposed to protect us,

aimed the weapons against us, I could not seat and do nothing in the situation [KOMS:


“My father was involved in an independence movement during the Japanese rule

and he was labeled as ‘thug’. What a destiny. My son became a ‘thug’ of the Kwangju

Uprising. My father became a fighter of independence movement after the liberation.

And I have a firm belief that my son will be exonerated soon just like my father had

been. [KOMS: 1236]”.

Another unavoidable and probably more powerful comparison in the nationalist

discourse at the time was comparison between the paratroopers and North Koreans. As it

is well known, the modern Korean dictators, seeking for legitimacy of their rule,

consistently engaged in propaganda to proclaim their legitimacy in the national history

over the other government in the peninsular. Under these circumstances, the citizen’s

remarks in relation to the communist North can be very compelling.

One old man cried, “How did this happen? I saw many brutal Japanese cops during

the colonial time. I saw Communists during the Korean War. I have never seen cruelty

like the killings today! Students are not criminals! These paratroopers are not our

soldiers! They are devils in disguise! (Lee: 48)”

“The special force soldiers were more brutal than the communists during the

Korean War [KOMS: 1395]”

“The soldiers asked me whether my father was a member of the people’s army

during the Korean War [KOMS: 422]”.

“Soldiers with Kyongsang accent rushed to me and battered with the club by

saying ‘you communists’ [KOMS: 484]”.

As demonstrated above, the contestation began with the question “who is the

legitimate heir of our nation” or “who betrayed the national community.” The state elite

used the term ‘national security’ while the Kwangju citizens emphasized the brutality

against the members of the same nation. Yet, the most controversial part of the

contestation is how to interpret the apparent regional inequality within the nation. As

shown in the statement of the commander of the martial law, the state elite described the

regional discontent as rebellion against the national community while ignoring the very

existence of any regional disparity. On the other hand, the movement activists were

extremely cautious of making any regionalist claims. They knew all too well that the

regionalist claims cannot work against the state propaganda of “renegade region” theory.

They suspected that it only isolates the region from the other part of the nation and thus

helps strengthen the state side of the story. Therefore, instead of the emphasizing the

regional inequality and discrimination, they stressed the national ordeal of democracy and


They wanted Kwangju to become a new national symbol of democratic struggle.

Specifically, the movement activists sought to connect the Uprising to the long list of

nationalist struggles against the external forces including the Tonghak Peasant Rebellion

in 1894, the anti-Japanese Kwangju Student Movement in 1929. This is an effort to

avoid the trap of the ‘renegade region’ theory. In a similar effort, activists tried to locate

the Uprising at the center of the national geography. One of the leading intellectuals of

the region, professor Mun Byongnan of Chosun University claimed in a news magazine

article, “Bloodshed of Kwangju is not only for the people of Kwangju, it is for the whole

nation. People in Pusun and Taegu should pay tribute and keep it in their heart” [KDMD

vol.17: 316].

Carrying a regional baggage was considered as an obstacle for national consensus

building on the significance of the Kwangju Uprising. In fact, national surveys in the

1990s consistently showed that majority of the people outside of Kwangju perceived that

the Uprising was a regional issue (see KDMD vol. 16). The movement elite actively

sought to eliminate regional color of the movement. One of the key student leaders

during the Uprising, Chung Dongnyun in 1988 expressed his idea of how to define the

Uprising in fighting with the government propaganda. While adopting the class struggle

version of the theory, he suggests dropping the name “Kwnagju” in order to eliminate

regionalist tone of the uprising.

“Current discussion of the cause and background of the Uprising finds excessive

use of force in suppression, regional alienation in the process of economic

distribution, and political power distribution. On the other hand, some say that

the Cholla residents wanted to fulfill their longing and political dream through

Kim Dae Jung. These interpretations are deadly wrong. The history is struggle

between haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.

From now on, we should not call it 5.18 Kwangju People’s Uprising. It is

because the name denotes regional claims. People all around the country were

equally indignant in May [of 1980] and it happened to explode in Kwangju.

Therefore, let’s call it the May People’s Uprising. [KOMS: 518]”

Long after the Uprising, the contestation of the regional vs. national remained the

same. The efforts to nationalize the conceived ‘regional’ movement continue. Yet, it has

failed to completely replace the government version of the renegade region and could not

achieve the intended goal of national symbol status. Suggestions on how to achieve the

goal is not very specific. One participant of the Uprising put it,

“Kwangju has to be reborn. And we have to develop the spirit of the movement so

that it can be the next national spirit [KOMS: 583].

Facing the stalemate, some suggest that people of Kwangju should forget about the

regional issue altogether. It is understood that region is a sub category of nation and thus

sacrifice of region is inevitable for the good of the nation.

“You mentioned that how I am not angry about the regional discrimination as a son

of Honam. How couldn’t I be angry about the regional discrimination? I am indignant

about the 5.16 coup and the following regimes and their anti-historical, anti-national,

anti-state, and anti-democratic regionalism that increased the regional disparity and

alienation. How could I accept and forgive those treatments as a man of Homan, which

endured the most devastating discrimination and alienation? However, I do not agree

with you on how to overcome this. I argue that only the establishment of nationalistic

and progressive regime can solve this issue step-by-step. You argue that an elected

Honam president can solve this problem immediately (Yun 1996: 337)”.

Regional discrimination is committed by Yongnam regimes of the past. It has

nothing to do with people of Yongnam. We should not treat them as perpetrators or

antagonize them. They share same bloodline with us and we are no different with them

racially, ethnically, religiously, and culturally (Yun 1996: 350).

Interview of Jung Sang Yong 1988: “I am reborn in May 1980. My duty is to live

with will of the dead [during the Uprising] and uphold the true spirit of Kwangju. Some

mention regional characteristics [of Kwangju] in order to tarnish the Kwangju spirit.

Honam discrimination is a trivial matter. The spirit of Kwangju is to achieve the

democracy all people of the nation. That is to keep the dignity and self reliance of the

nation [KDMD Vol. 11]”.

In conclusion, the two conflicting discourses on the Uprising show similar

understanding of the location of region in the national imagining. They all presume a

rigidly subordinate role of regional identity under the umbrella of national identity. In the

government version, the region should not jeopardize the national security. And

suggesting any intra-national inequality was somehow translated into egoistic and anti-

national behavior. On the other hand, the movement intellectuals tried either to ignore the

regional issues or replace the whole notion of the nation. The former completely

correspond to the government understanding of the region. Logical presumption of the

latter position can be a little different from the former in a sense that they consider the

experience of the region should be a base of the new nation. However, it does not go

beyond the symbolic role of the region within the nation. In other words, in their

imagining, the Uprising is not necessarily a ‘regional’ experience. It does not matter

where it happened. All in all, the effort to develop new national integration outside the

purview of state power was not very successful in the Korea case.

Discussion and Conclusion

In retrospect, the regional struggle could be a more serious issue in the Korean

politics considering the regional disparity, regionalized elite groups, and other

regionalized institutions in the 80s. There is no doubt that one of the most significant

forces that deterred the development was overarching ideology of “homogenous single

ethnic nation.” At a first glance, it seems that the homogeneity of the nation prevented the

further disintegration of the regions. I tried to show more than that. A close observation

reveals how it actually worked (or not worked) in the process. I argue that it was not

simply the nation harnessing the disintegrating regions. It was more of who controlled the

nationalist discourse and why regionalist claims were allowed (or not allowed) in the

political arena. Specifically, I demonstrated that under the circumstance of state

domination of nationalist discourse, which heavily favored national integration and

sacrifice for the nation, there is no way of presenting regional issues. Under the

circumstances, after the uprising, the state denounced the citizens of the region as

marginal members of the nation who jeopardized the national unity and security. Facing

this uphill battle, the movement intellectuals also engaged in the nationalist discourse, by

denouncing the rulers as betrayers and slayers of nation. Engaging in the nationalist

discourse, however, they lost the ground to demonstrate the regional inequality and

discrimination. They had to abandon the regionalist claims altogether and some of them

actually did. Others tried to reconstruct the nation centered on the experience of the

regionalist struggle. It ended up as an incomplete mission. In conclusion, it explains why

place of regional identity in politics is very tenuous in South Korea especially when it

challenges, or being challenged by, the dominant version of national identity.

From a theoretical standpoint, the Korean regionalist struggle demonstrates that

regional identity should not always be considered as a sub-unit of national identity.

However limited it might be, there is a possibility the region becoming a symbol of new

nation—region becoming a center of national imagining. Put differently, nationalism or

national identity can not always dictate the local or regional identity. Certain version of

regional identity can be a base of national imagining while certain type of nationalism

does not allow regional disparity to surface.

This finding inadvertently confirms the state domination of national identity in

Korea. The failure of regional challenge in our study attests this well known thesis on

East Asian States. At the same time, however, we do not rule out the possibility that even

in state dominated East Asian nationalisms, there are ample possibilities of challenging

official version of nationalism. There are multiple claims of national identity in Korea or

any other nation-state in modern politics. It could be labeled as official, unofficial,

challenging, everyday, and banal nationalism.

Another lesson from this study is that nationalism is not always a unifying force. It is

as much a divisive force in a nation-state. As it is widely shown in post-colonial states,

meaning of nation is always controversial and different groups present different symbol

and meaning of nation (Snyder; Allcock). Defining and maintaining the boundary of

nation can easily become a violent process. In a general sense, nationalist discourse on

the regionalist politics in Korea falls into the same category. Yet the outcome was not



Database Abbreviations

[KOMS] Kwangju Ow l Minjunghangjaeng Saryoch njip [Kwangju May People’s Uprising Historical Data] . 1990. Hanguk Hyundaesa Saryo Yonguso. [KDMD] 5.18 Kwangju Minjuhwa Undong Charyo Ch’ongs . Vol. 1- 22. [Kwangju Democracy Movement Database] 1998-1999. Kwangju City Committee of 5.18 History.

Bibliography Database Abbreviations [KOMS] Kwangju Ow l Minjunghangjaeng Saryoch njip [ Kwangju May People’s Uprising Historical
Bibliography Database Abbreviations [KOMS] Kwangju Ow l Minjunghangjaeng Saryoch njip [ Kwangju May People’s Uprising Historical
Bibliography Database Abbreviations [KOMS] Kwangju Ow l Minjunghangjaeng Saryoch njip [ Kwangju May People’s Uprising Historical

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