Tenacious particularism: rethinking contemporary South Korean democracy through the prism of culture and history
Suh, Joo Hee
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This dissertation theorizes recent political events in South Korea. It consists of three separate essays which proceed chronologically and are united by their critiques of the culture and government of South Korea. The first essay concerns the 2006 debate over South Korea’s founding that was shaped by two opposing achievements: the establishment of the Korean Provisional Government in 1919 and the creation of the South Korean government in 1948. Drawing on the fact that the majority of the South Korean population supports the former, I argue that the South Korean approach to founding is deeply tied to the issues of national identity and past history and the notion of “We, the People” as a cultural and historical concept. Deviating from the notion of individual rights and liberties, the South Korean case sits outside the existing perspectives—both foundationalist and anti-foundationalist—on founding. The second essay addresses the 2015 agreement between South Korea and Japan on the issue of the Korean comfort women during WWII. I demonstrate that emotions—specifically, an intense culture-bound sentiment called han—takes the center stage when dealing with issues of justice and moral concerns in Korea. The result is an emergence of an affective, historically-generated moral paradigm that is determined, not by the force of reason and logic, but by victimhood. I conclude that while such a standard of justice may be difficult to grasp for non-Koreans, it is easily understandable from the Korean perspective. The third essay deals with the candlelight protests of 2016-2017 that led to the impeachment of the former President Park Geun-hye. I analyze the causes of the candlelight protests of 2016-2017 with a view to investigating the distinctive characteristics of political protests in South Korea. I argue that while the common understanding of political protest is that it is a sign of a successful democracy and a symptom of healthy civil society, the South Korean situation suggests an alternative perspective; that it is instead an indication of a serious political dysfunction and an absence of an unconditional support for democracy.