Social Movements and the Political Polarization of South Korean Society

By Paul Y. Chang

For all the dramatic headlines about the debilitating costs associated with the polarization of American politics in recent years, the inability of political parties and factions to engage in constructive debate and dialogue is arguably a greater problem in newer democracies. After all, when was the last time we saw congressional debates escalate into physical fighting between American legislatures on the floor of the Senate or House of Representatives? While this might be unimaginable in America it is, unfortunately, a relatively common occurrence in institutional politics in some Asian nations. In 2012, for example, members of the Thai parliament rushed the House Speaker, Somsak Kiatsuranont, who had attempted to force a discussion of a controversial “reconciliation bill” that Democrat MPs rejected. Between the grabbing and pulling, and under the swirl of documents flying through the air, Somsak Kiatsuranont hurried off the parliament floor behind the protection of security forces (Fredrickson 2012). This and other examples of physical fighting amongst legislators (e.g. Taiwan parliament fighting in 2004, 2006, 2007) are perhaps the clearest and most visible manifestation of polarization in institutional politics.

Scholarship on the consequences of social movements has moved beyond assessing the immediate results of mobilization to look at the unintended long-term impact of collective action on state and society. In a recent article, Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell propose a compelling explanation for the political polarization we see in some regions of America today: Ku Klux Klan activism in the 1960s “exacerbated deep divisions” in the American South which polarized local communities with some white voters shifting party allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican Party, a move that was reinforced by the “restructuring of social relationships” in local settings (2014: 1146, 1148). This political realignment at the local level contributed to the durability of polarization which, in turn, explains the “South’s [current] strong ties to the national Republican Party” (McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell 2014: 1145). The larger implications of their argument are readily apparent, given that political polarization can compromise the stability of governments and is a factor for why some democracies collapse (Diskin, Diskin, and Hazan 2005).

Inspired by McVeigh et al’s (2014) insights on the potential impact that collective action and social movements have on political polarization, I discuss in this essay the historical legacies of South Korea’s democracy movement. South Korea, along with Taiwan, is infamous for the physical altercations that have taken place between members of parliament over the years. As some scholars have noted, the admittedly embarrassing images of legislators punching, kicking, and clawing, reflect deep cleavages in South Korea (Suh, Chang, and Lim 2012). Indeed, as Sook-Jong Lee laments, South Korea is “more fragmented than ever before” (2005: 102). It did not help that South Koreans, in 2012, elected Park Geun-hye as the first female president in the country’s history. Park Geun-hye has proven to be a polarizing force in Korean politics and society, not so much because of her gender but because she is the first daughter of Park Chung Hee who ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1979.

The “Park Chung Hee era” was a period of extended authoritarian rule (Kim and Vogel 2011). The Republic of Korea (South Korea), founded in 1948 with the support of the United Nations, was intended to be a beacon of democracy and capitalism in the emerging new world order after World War II. Liberty and freedom, however, gave way to security and development in the realpolitik context of the nascent Cold War. Justified by the directive to “contain communism,” South Korea was ruled by successive authoritarian leaders since its founding to 1987, when direct presidential elections were reinstated. The democratization of South Korea in 1987 was, in large part, the culmination of social movements that emerged and evolved in the context of highly repressive rule (Shin and Chang 2011).

For nearly thirty years – beginning with the 1960 student revolution to the June uprising in 1987 – activists fought for democratic reforms in South Korea. Matching the dedication of these activists, the South Korean government turned to extreme repression tactics to quell protests including torture and murder (Chang and Vitale 2013). The duration and scale of South Korea’s democracy movement facilitated the birth of a “protest generation” (Whittier 1997) that consisted of various groups in Korean society, including workers in Korea’s booming manufacturing industries, progressive students and intellectuals, censored journalists, and the new urban poor (Chang 2015). These antigovernment forces came together under the collective identity of the minjung (translated as “masses”), who were defined as the direct opposition to the authoritarian state (Lee 2007). Through the crucible of state repression significant portions of Korean society came to see themselves as the bearers of Korean democracy, “true patriots” as it were, as their ideological positions became entrenched.

Social psychologists have been telling us for years that ingroup identity and solidarity are a function of outgroup contention (Tajfel 1982). It should come as no surprise then that Korean activists fighting a dictatorial system for decades would develop a collective concept of self that bears all the hallmarks of an oppositional social identity, where individual-level attributes (e.g. meaning, self-esteem, and purpose) are tied to their membership in the movement generation. It is in this context that we can understand better why President Park Geun-hye is such a polarizing force. Her election, although through democratic procedures, represents the reemergence of conservative forces at best, and, at worst, the authoritarian legacy. If KKK activism in America’s South in the 1960s resulted in the “wedding of the Klan’s mainly working-class constituency to the Republican Party” (McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell 2014: 1164), decades of struggle against authoritarianism resulted in a significant portion of Korean society unwilling, indeed unable, to support a progeny of dictatorship.


Chang, Paul Y. 2015. Protest Dialectics: State Repression and South Korea’s Democracy Movement, 1970-1979. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (

Chang, Paul Y. and Alex S. Vitale. 2013. “Repressive Coverage in an Authoritarian Context: Threat, Weakness, and Legitimacy in South Korea’s Democracy Movement.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly Vol. 18(1): 19-39. (

Diskin, Abraham, Hanna Diskin, and Reuven Y. Hazan. 2005. “Why Democracies Collapse: The Reasons for Democratic Failure and Success.” International Political Science Review 26(3): 291-309. (

Fredrickson, Terry. 2012. “Chaos in Parliament: Day 3,” Bangkok Post, June 1, 2012. (

Kim, Byung-Kook and Ezra F. Vogel. 2011. The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (

Lee, Namhee. 2007. The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (

Lee, Sook-Jong. 2005. “Democratization and Polarization in Korean Society.” Asian Perspective 29(3): 99-125. (

McVeigh, Rory, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell. 2014. “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and Its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000.” American Sociological Review 79(6): 1144-1171. (

Shin, Gi-Wook and Paul Y. Chang (eds.). 2011. South Korean Social Movements: From Democracy to Civil Society. London: Routledge. (

Suh, Chan S., Paul Y. Chang, and Yi Sook Lim. 2012. “Spill-Up and Spill-Over of Trust: An Extended Test of Cultural and Institutional Theories of Trust in South Korea.” Sociological Forum Vol. 27(2): 504-526. (

Tajfel, Henri (ed.). 1982. Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (

Whittier, Nancy. 1997. “Political Generations, Micro-Cohorts, and the Transformation of Social Movements.” American Sociological Review 62(5): 760-778. (,&searchText=Micro-Cohorts,&searchText=and&searchText=the&searchText=Transformation&searchText=of&searchText=Social&searchText=Movements&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DPolitical%2BGenerations%252C%2BMicro-Cohorts%252C%2Band%2Bthe%2BTransformation%2Bof%2BSocial%2BMovements%26amp%3Bacc%3Don%26amp%3Bwc%3Don%26amp%3Bfc%3Doff)

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Movements in East and Southeast Asia

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