Asia's Unknown Uprisings, Vol. 1: South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century

Reviewed by Michael

George Katsiaficas, Asia's Unknown Uprisings, Vol. 1: South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012)

George Katsiaficas, the prolific student of mass movements, offers an ambitious and well documented study of modern South Korean social movements. The central question he poses is to what extent they arise spontaneously from masses of "ordinary" people. His key concept is the "eros effect," which he developed during the worldwide uprisings in 1968 as described in his first book, The Imagination of the New Left (1987). This effect is achieved when "ordinary people take history in their own hands," and unite in an insurgency so powerful that it causes "the basic assumptions of society... to vanish overnight." During periods of the eros effect, masses of people come together in "beloved communities of struggle" and "live according to transformed norms, values and beliefs" (xxi). For Katsiaficas, "The outcome of spontaneous and massive occurrences is often far better than [that of] deliberately planned ones" (144), because uprisings are "a form of ordinary people's wisdom that exceeds the shortsighted decision-making powers of world corporate and political elites" (3).

Applying this perspective to the history of Korean social movements, Katsiaficas was "amazed" to find the eros effect embodied in “what has been called the 'absolute community' of the Gwangju Uprising" – a massive popular takeover of a South Korean provincial capital against the military dictatorship for several weeks in May, 1980. Throughout the arc of Korean history, he finds early evidence of "self-directed" struggles in the 1894 Tonghak Uprising (his term is the "Farmers’ War"1) against Yangban landlords and the Japanese troops they invited to crush the uprising. More recently between 2002 and 2008, he cites the "candlelight" demonstrations against US beef imports and the reactionary Lee Myung-bak regime.

Katsiaficas sees Korean popular struggles as directed primarily toward national independence against foreign domination – a nationalist objective not so clearly encompassed by the kind of anarchist theory which his approach suggests. In any case, this broad understanding has a sound basis: for most of the 20th century through today, much of Korea has been occupied by foreign military forces – first the entire peninsula by Japan as its (western-approved) colony from 1905-1945 and then by the US, whose occupation troops arrived after the Japanese surrender in September, 1945 and still number over 28,500 in the Republic of Korea (ROK) today. By contrast, Soviet troops actually liberated the country from Japan north of the 38th parallel in several weeks of bitter fighting in August 1945. They left when the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established in 1948 (although some of their air force returned during the Korean war). Similarly, China withdrew most of the "People’s Volunteers" – who expelled the US from the DPRK –  soon after the Korean war ended in 1953, although the last contingents, which assisted in reconstruction, went home in 1958.

Koreans responded to these occupations in a series of political and armed struggles for national independence, first against the Japanese occupation and then against the American one in South Korea (primarily from 1946-53). Although his book is concerned with South Korea, Katsiaficas suggests that the DPRK, which pursues a resolutely independent (critics say "isolated") path in international affairs, aspires to represent a defiant Korean nationalism in opposition to US/Japanese cultural penetration of the ROK nourished by their military and economic alliances.

Katsiaficas begins his analysis with the critical 1945-50 period in the South, during which the US occupation, operating through former Japanese collaborators in the military and police, brutally suppressed the popular local People’s Committees (PCs) and their national expression in Seoul as the Korean People’s Republic (KPR). He contrasts that imperial policy with the Soviet Union's occupation in the North, which recognized (and influenced) the PCs in its zone. He believes that if the US had not intervened against the October Uprising in 1946 – "the most significant armed popular movement since Tonghak" – it would have "toppled the Seoul administration and installed the KPR as the sole government" (72).

The October Uprising (also called the "Autumn Harvest Uprising") consisted of massive public protests against suppression of the KPR and against the imported regime of Syngman Rhee. It included rural seizures of power and workers’ strikes and finally formations of "armed revolutionary power in entire regions." Katsiaficas attributes the defeat of the October Uprising to "massive firepower directed by the US" and finds that the absence of American casualties, in contrast to thousands of Korean ones, was due to the PCs’ wrong expectation that the US would negotiate with them.

At this point, Katsiaficas shifts into high gear his running argument with Bruce Cumings, the leading US scholar of post-World War II Korea. Although Cumings views the Autumn Harvest Uprising as "a last, massive attempt by the seize power in the provinces," Katsiaficas finds that Cumings overemphasizes the role of Rhee's "national police network" in their suppression (79), while giving insufficient weight to the role of US troops.

Katsiaficas also criticizes Cumings’ treatment of the 1948 JejuIsland and Yeosun (Yosu) insurrections. Although he sees in the Island's stiff resistance to the occupation "a kind of living anarchism," he recognizes that the 1948 uprisings were largely organized by the communist South Korean Labor party (SKLP). He cites the flying of DPRK flags over liberated towns and villages as evidence that the 1948 uprisings were linked with the North through the SKLP. Their exceptionally hideous suppression under the notorious US Captain James Hausman, the author says, brought "tears to the eyes of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung," who had urged South Koreans to rebuild their PCs. He even suggests that Kim's June 1950 attack across the 38th parallel was an effort to rescue the remaining organized radicals (now guerrilla detachments forced up into the mountains). Was the war a response to their pleas for fraternal help and an effort to answer broad demands for intervention from the South Koreans?

Katsiaficas views the period between the 1948 uprisings and the "outbreak" of the Korean war as a time when "guerrilla warfare became of necessity the anti-imperialist movement's tactical approach" (106). His beef with Cumings continues as he insists that the 1948 uprisings were "revolutionary" because their participants "wanted to change the world" whereas Cumings views them as mere "rebellions" in which Koreans rose up against the existing order but without a clear vision of what to replace it with (105).

The highlight of the book is its intimate and detailed analysis of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. Katsiaficas spent several years in the city since 1999, and regards it as his "Korean hometown" where, in his words, "I was a public figure whose views were well known because my books were translated and I therefore had the privilege to be granted insider status in movement circles." He regards the significance of Gwangju to be "comparable to the Paris Commune of 1871" (xxii) and a paradigmatic example of the eros effect. "Historically speaking," he writes, "the Gwangju People's Uprising of 1980 is...the pivotal moment around which dictatorship was transformed into democracy." Students joined with workers, even the white-collar "necktie brigade," to take over the city from the brutal military junta. That junta had come to power through a US-backed coup against the short-lived popular government that followed the student-inspired overthrow of Rhee in 1961. For several weeks in May, according to Katsiaficas, the Minjung2 community demonstrated "the spontaneous chain reaction of people coming to each other's assistance, the erotic occupation of public space, and the loving embrace in which the city united nearly everyone in it,” all of which constituted “one of the twentieth century's clearest expressions of the capacity of millions of ordinary people to govern themselves beautifully and with grace" (164). His analysis of the Gwangju uprising comprises about 100 of the book’s 420 pages, but its impact informs the entire work.

Although the insurgency was bloodily suppressed by the military and the US, Katsiaficas notes that many Koreans regard its legacy as "the birthplace of Korean democracy." With the end of the military dictatorship in 1987, they celebrate the end of 25 years of suffering and pay homage to the heroic people and the martyrs of Gwangju city and province.

The author's deep investment in the wisdom and instincts of "ordinary" people contrasts with his contempt for elites and suspicion of "movement theorists" (including revolutionary ones), "academic experts," and "professional revolutionary groups." Foremost among those "experts" are Cumings and Martin Hart-Landsberg. Katsiaficas calls out Cumings (whose "trailblazing work was initially welcomed by Koreans when it appeared") for erroneous dates, for failing to address charges that the US engaged in biological warfare, and for other issues already mentioned. But his most fundamental difference with Cumings is over how to describe the Korean War. Cumings views it as a "civil war"; Katsiaficas, as a war of national liberation.

One element of the underlying dispute is over whether Cumings ignores or minimizes the dominant role of the US in suppressing the Korean people's uprisings, starting with the KPR and PCs in 1945, the Autumn Harvest Uprising of 1946, and the Jeju and Yeosun insurrections, and extending through the Korean war and the military regimes of 1961-87 whose doom was sealed at Gwangju. The other element of dispute is over the strength and scope of the Korean uprisings, which Cumings finds weaker, less coherent and more subject to suppression by reactionary ROK elements (albeit with US support) than does Katsiaficas. This difference in assessing the social movements of Korea reflects the anarchistic faith and hope that the author invests in the capacity of "ordinary" people to organize society independently of party-leaders or governments. And when in the day of Occupy he reminds us of Rosa Luxemburg's preference for the "superiority of the worst mistakes of a truly democratic workers' movement to the best dictates of a party's central committee" (106), we should pay attention.

Reviewed by Michael Munk Portland, Oregon


1. Katsiaficas rejects its common title, the Tonghak Uprising, because that "synthetic religion" did not account for the masses of farmers fighting for their economic rights against the Yangbans of the feudal class of elite landowners. Tonghak traditions carry on to this day through Chondogyo institutions and believers in both North and South   Korea.

2. Minjung literally means "the mass of the people," In Korea, it carries a radical connotation denoting those who are oppressed politically, exploited economically, marginalized sociologically, despised culturally, and condemned religiously.