Recent studies have begun to problematize the ways an enduring master-narrative of the “minju” (democratic) labor movement was constructed over the 1970s and 1980s. By examining the voices of women unionists from the past few decades, this article seeks to understand the historical context behind the rise of a particular labor movement discourse and what it might have meant to women workers. It focuses on the complex and sometimes conflictual relationship between exportindustry workers and Christian and student labor activists in the “labor-intellectual alliance” that began in the 1970s. The core of the minju narrative is the idea that a new, historic “labor-intellectual alliance” against the eoyong (pro-company) labor establishment and the repressive state, in which the heroic actions of women workers played the pivotal role, led to the minju camp’s eventual triumph in the 1980s. The article deconstructs this hegemonic minju labor discourse, revealing the gap between its rhetoric and reality, by exploring how women themselves coped with the incongruity of their lived experiences and the representations of their struggle in the dominant minju movement. In particular, it focuses on the story of Han Sunim, a well-known leader of the 1970s labor movement whose eventual “betrayal” of the movement was deeply etched in the lore of the minju cause. Understanding minju labor discourse from the perspective of women workers also helps illuminate the little-understood politics of memory in the Korean labor movement and raises new questions on what current scholarly intervention into memory production might mean.
Discourse on sexuality in Korea has, until very recently, been dominated by a rigid patriarchal morality with female chastity at its core. Scholars have pointed out that the same kind of patriarchal and conservative attitudes that suppressed the representation of sexuality can be found in counter-cultural discourse by subalterns such as those in the memoirs and diaries of 1970s and 1980s working-class men and women. In this essay, I argue that such generalizations fail to do justice to the open, progressive, and creative attitudes towards sexuality that existed, and were represented, in life-writing9 texts by Korean laborers. I analyze working-class women’s open and progressive attitudes towards sexuality through an examination of life writing by Korean laborers written and published from the 1970s onward. In my examination, I pay particular attention to the possible differences in attitudes that may be due to the author’s gender or position in the labor movement as well as to the author’s choice of genre.
This article explores the processes of self-formation among female street entrepreneurs (street vendors) and dressmakers (garment manufacturers) in the Dongdaemun Sijang (market) area in Seoul through an examination of their life stories. My aim is to delve deeply into the relationships of agency and change in the lives of women working in these marginalized sectors of the Korean economy. Through ethnographic research, I argue that the dominant notion of agency as resistance to constrictive structure cannot solely account for these women’s lives and experience of social change. They have enacted agency not only to resist structure, but also to enjoy pursuits of their diverse desires. This array of desires can be similar or differ among the women, coexist in a single woman’s life, and change according to life cycle and changes in broader society. The principal motors for, and effects of, their pursuit of desires are related to acquiring the capacity to do something in particular, and establishing relationships or relating to others in a particular way. I argue that even those actions taken without the aim of transforming constrictive gender and other social patterns can bring change over an extended period.
This paper examines the realities of life and work for women during the 1950s through life history interviews with Korean War widows. The 1950s was a time when many women began to enter the public arena in South Korea. This period witnessed, at the level of social discourse, radical discussions on women’s economic activities in relation to the goal of women’s liberation. What characterized the dominant discourse of the day was an activist thrust that defended women’s entry into jobs outside the home as a natural outcome of the changed conditions of the era, as a matter of women’s human rights, or as a prerequisite for the reconstruction of Korean society. On the other hand, however, the realities of war widows’ lives in the 1950s show glaring discrepancies from what the discourse produced by contemporary journals portrayed. Most war widows spent their lives playing the role of family head, caring for children, and supporting their in-laws. It is hard to find signs of the changing status of widows in the family corresponding to their expanded economic responsibilities. Most war widows maintained their daughterin- law roles while also assuming the role of breadwinner for the family. In short, there was a gap between the image of modern women produced by intellectuals and the actual life stories of war widows. A major reason for this divergence is the fact that women began their economic activities to secure the livelihood of their families following their husbands’ deaths. For war widows having a job often meant becoming even more bound up in the framework of traditional value systems and family institutions, rather than a process of achieving their own individual rights. In the cases of war widows who sought to work not for family reasons but of their own volition, we find that opposition from the family often thwarted their desires. Although ending in failure, the life courses of this latter group reveal much about how, during the 1950s, a radical and modern consciousness was forged while the traditional family system and pre-modern consciousness persisted.
Making use of the oral life-history testimonies of two Korean nurses dispatched to West Germany (padok), this article analyzes what these women remember and how they give meaning to their migration experience. The memories and narratives of padok nurses were quite different from the dominant narrative on padok produced by the South Korean government, which emphasized the dispatched workers’ contributions to rapid economic growth and development of the nation. The memories of two Korean nurses that this article is based on, of course, do not represent all the memories of padok nurses. Nevertheless, their memories show us that their labor migration to West Germany was not forced upon them by government, but was, in large part, an individual choice made by the nurses themselves. The padok was important for the rapid economic growth of South Korea during the Park Chung Hee period. At the same time, West Germany, due to a shortage of labor in social service sectors, such as nursing, needed nurses from Korea. That is to say, padok nurses were indispensable to the social market economy of West Germany. The migration to Germany provided important opportunities for nurses seeking to escape from poverty and the fetters of patriarchy. The memories of these two Korean nurses reveal to us that the official narrative on the reasons and effects of padok in macro-historical terms do not fully capture the actual experiences of Korean workers. Therein lies the significance of padok women’s testimony about what they themselves remember and how today they evaluate their migration experiences and contributions. They deepen our understanding of the padok history of South Korea.
As of 2009, the economic, security and diplomatic circumstances on and around the Korean Peninsula are highly complex and dynamic. While the US, whose economy was cast into tumult by the recent financial crisis, tries to maintain its military hegemony in Northeast Asia, Japan, whose status as the economic leader of East Asia is threatened by China’s recent economic rise, aims to become a “normal nation.” This push by Japan will likely trigger an arms race in Northeast Asia, which in turn will raise tensions between China and Japan. The US-Korea alliance is the pivot of South Korea’s foreign policy. However, strengthening the alliance inevitably forces South Korea to choose a side in the power play between China and Japan in Northeast Asia, adding to the tensions between the two countries. Furthermore, such a policy would not serve Korea’s best interests. Rather than an alliance, neutrality is an appropriate foreign policy for Korea and it is high time we consider neutrality as a viable alternative.
This paper focuses on the ideological characteristics, structure and strategy of discourse on the “military-first politics” that has gradually expanded into almost all sectors of North Korean society. After successful ascension to supreme authority, Kim Jong-il’s regime set up “military-first politics” to legitimate his control over North Korean society. As the discourse system grew from military-first politics into a concrete political precept called “the military-first formula,” North Korean ideologues were tasked with providing a valid logic regarding the origin of the military-first politics and forming a logical framework for politics after the year 2000. Now the discourse of the “military-first policy” has developed in political, social and military arenas having produced a new ethos in North Korea. Gradually, the rhetoric of military-first politics spread into every social, political, and cultural sector to become the primary ruling philosophy of North Korea.
This article looks at capitalist social change in colonial Korea from 1920 to 1937 and its impact on shifting nationalist discourse on women’s work and wifely domesticity. Particular attention is placed on historically appropriated gender roles accorded to Korean colonial women, especially those who were housewives in the domestic sphere. By methodologically setting the historical debate of the “wise mother and good wife” (hyeonmo yangcheo) as an analytical prism, this study deals with the question of how the Confucian patriarchal system collided with newly established social relations, and how this specific historical conjuncture conditioned the emergence of modern Korean female subjectivities. At another level, by way of analyzing the collision between Korean nationalist resolution of the “woman’s question” and the vision of highly educated Korean female intellectuals, this article ferrets out the substance and meaning of Korean female subjectivity constructed from colonial women’s working experiences and their double burden under the given modern patriarchal structure. This study also draws on the gendered implication of Korean colonial modernity, that is, not a fixed structure but a reconstitution of patriarchal relations, a process of de(con)structive constructiveness derived from continuous interactions among nationalism, colonialism, modernity and tradition relative to the making of “Koreanness” as an imagined fraternal community and a collective gendered national subject.