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 nonofficial nationalism that might brings in sweeping changes in nationalist discourse in Korea? 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 democracy1) 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 nationalism2, 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

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.


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 reemerged) in modern politics and why regional conflicts exploded during the democratic transition in Korea for instance.


Region (Ethnicity) 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 Identity

<Figure 2> Contested Construction of Nation and Nationalism6

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, contextdriven, 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


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; 2004).


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 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.

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 history11. 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 elements12 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.

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 action.
“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 selfrestraint. 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 North13. 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


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 delegitimatizing the movement. Particularly the rumors of regional background of the paratroopers, which had played a significant role in strengthening indignation among the citizenry of Kwangju15, 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.

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 antinational 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 context.
“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: 609]”. “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 independence. 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 antinational 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 deadly.



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