Minjung Nationalism and 'Minjung’s Struggle’

Meanwhile, the minjung movement that emerged in the 1970s and proliferated in the 1980s, resisting the authoritarian regimes and criticizing the United States’ political and economic interference, perceived as neo-imperialism, called for minjung nationalism. The minjung movement activists argued that the North-South division system legitimized the undemocratic authoritarian rules reinforcing ‘statist nationalism’, racism, and the continuing hegemonic role of the United States in South Korea. Therefore, unification of Korea by minjung, the activists advocated, would be the impetus for Korean democratic transformation and its independence from neo-imperialism.

In this line of thought, minjung historiography, relying on a historical materialist theory, emerged in the 1980s with the objectives of populist national historiography (minjungjeok minjok sahak) and anti-imperialist national historiography (panje minjok sahak). Minjung historiography conceived national history from a minjung perspective, countering the heroic and elitist perspective of history and embracing North Korean experiences. Many scholars and teachers who studied Korean history in college during the 1980s were deeply imbued with the minjung perspective. Historian Byung-Hee Lee, Korean history specialist, insisted that ‘minjung struggled for liberation from [Japanese] colonialism, the establishment of the self-determined democratic nation, the prevention of the consolidation of the North and South division system, the overthrow of anti-democratic regimes, and the eradication of distorted capitalist exploitation relations.’ He continued that ‘history education should contribute to the democratization and the two Koreas’ unification and it should set minjung as the subject of historical development’ (Lee, 1992: 106).

With democratization in the late 1980s, minjung historiography was empowered to include in Korean history textbooks some topics about minjung's internal struggles and the struggles against foreign intruders. History textbooks continued to highlight the events of national crisis but shed light on minjung's collective efforts, together with heroic elites’ leadership, to overcome the national crises.

The minjung historiography pursued practical purposes different from those of the Chung-Hee Park regime’s notion of Korean history. It inspired common people to become agents of history, bringing about changes to social ‘progress’ and contributing to reforming a national identity centered on a democratic mission. However, scholars in minjung historiography in retrospect criticized the conception of minjung formed in the 1980s as ‘superficial, and not scientifically sophisticated’ (Hur, 2013). The minjung was viewed as a monolithic group with homogeneous aspiration and predicaments.

Despite differences over the criteria for interpreting Korean history, such as anti-communism/developmentalism, and anti-imperialism/democracy, the Park regime’s notion of Korean history and the minjung's perspective of Korean history stressed exclusive nationalism subsuming other categories and identities under nation. Both notions of Korean history postulated Koreans as a homogenous people who belong to the same race and proclaimed pride in the antiquity and greatness of Korean history.

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