Where is the Korean anti-war movement?

It’s here!20130403170129_10

Or more precisely, here. Even if you don’t read Korean, you’ll notice that the crowd seems a little small and a little elderly for a country of 49 million. This is right in central Seoul, next to the monument to King Sejong that I visited with my Korean class a couple of weeks ago. Thousands of people pass by here every day; it looks like only 25 demonstrated.

To their credit, they’re representatives of major activist groups in Korea: the Korean Peasant League, the Women’s Peasant League, the Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement (an umbrella group that comes together on specific issues), and the Unified Progressive Party, which provides the article. The UPP is the remaining leftist party active in electoral politics in South Korea, with six national elected reps. They’ve been dogged by scandal and squandered much national support, but put together these groups represent  hundreds of thousands of Koreans.

This is a time of great tension (Whoops Apocalypse)

So why are there are only 25 people? There are a few reasons. First and most importantly, Koreans don’t actually think there will be a war. They’ve been through this for 60 years; they see the tension as regrettable but aren’t worried about it. This country is used to protest, but the motivation, in terms of immediate fear of conflict, isn’t there.

Second, this country has a cold war. And as anyone familiar with cold war history – or, for that matter, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq – knows, if you protest your government’s policies, you’re instantly suspected of being a traitor. The reunification movement is the biggest social movement in South Korea, but it’s unwilling to put its head above the parapet and call for peace, because this will bring accusations of appeasing, and therefore supporting the North.


Third, the left has splintered. In the 1970s, the reunification and labour movements were the same. The elder statesmen and women of the movement still think so, but they’re a minority. South Korea gained full democracy just before the Asian financial crisis of 1997; workers’ democracy quickly receded, and formal, bourgeois democracy remained. The social movements split too.

Interestingly, there’s a parallel between the Korean reunification movement and that of Quebec nationalists in the 1970s. Both began with a clear position on the national question: capitalism uses the nation to bind the working class to its rulers, therefore any movement for national liberation also has to be socialist. For completely different reasons, both movements saw their national projects stabilized in capitalist democracy, and nationalist leaders jettisoned any socialist content. So the UPP today, like the Parti Quebecois, is a nationalist party without many left-wing credentials. Likewise, the labour movement has been scared off by cold war threats and only talks about workplace issues. Neither is in a good place to mobilize against a war.


Perhaps that’s why the organizations sponsoring this tiny demonstration are largely outside of the labour-reunification orbit. Their slogans are quite good:

  • Stop the military exercises
  • Stop the interference in the domestic affairs of Korea
  • Proclaim the doctrine of federalism*
  • First step to conversation
  • Retreat of policy hostile to North Korea
  • Towards a peace agreement
  • Let’s gather power to end the war crisis in Korea and realize peace

* Federalism is a strategy North Korea considered a few years ago as a means to reunification. Promoted by the Swiss, it’s a way of achieving ‘one country, two systems’.

The fact that this protest took place at all is promising. These elders of Korean social movements show a lot of courage in resisting war hysteria:


But this is nowhere near the candle protests of 2008. That’s not to say they couldn’t grow; I remember the first anti-Gulf War protest in my city, in late 2002, had 40 people; a few months later there were 80,000. More needs to be done, and here’s why.

Here are some positive and negative motivations for a Korean anti-war movement. And because I’m an optimist, let’s get the negative out of the way first. Without a movement, the Korean left remains tied to cold war logic. It maintains its institutional capacity, true, but by accepting the ‘with us or against us logic’ being forced on it by the government and the U.S., it also accepts the latter’s legitimacy to dictate terms – both to the North, and more importantly, to itself. If your national government is the thin blue line between dictatorship and peace, then you can’t challenge it on any policies. That’s how the US government brilliantly exploited divisions between Communist and liberal trade unionists in the 1940s and 50s, neutralizing the most radical wing of the American labour movement under the guise of anti-Communism.


If there is a war, the Korean left instantly loses any legitimacy it has. The pressure to unite with the government in the name of national unity would be unbearable. Most likely the reunification and labour movements would splinter into various position-groups, as they were unable to form a united front before a conflict arose.

The positive reasons are better. Right now the news is dominated by North, South and U.S. tit-for-tat recriminations and escalations. Hidden in this is the idea that all governments have the trust – or, in the case of the North, the acquiescence – of their people. Imagine what would happen if the world’s media and belligerent governments were confronted with this:


The North could no longer claim the South was its sworn enemy, since thousands of southerners wanted their government to back off. The south would have to ratchet down its own rhetoric. And the U.S. could no longer claim to be acting in the defence of poor South Koreans – its own imperialist ambitions would be more transparent. A ‘third camp’ position forces a different issue onto the agenda: now, the world would be talking about people’s right to live without fear of aggression, rather than territorial ambitions, who has the right to nuclear power or imperial overstretch.

The example of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is instructive. Faced with the prospect of global holocaust in the 1950s, the CND took no position in the cold war; rather it called for a ban on nuclear weapons and immediate disarmament by its own government and all sides. I don’t take sides in a fight between capitalists and Stalinists, not only because I don’t see anything progressive in the class rule of North Korea, but also because a non-aligned peace movement would be an excellent way to subvert cold war propaganda on either side, force the U.S. to answer some awkward questions and contribute to the rebuilding of social movements in South Korea.

In turn, these groups can pose reunification in a new way: not by dodging the question of whether they support Communism, but by supporting peace and appealing to a new generation of Koreans. That generation may be more concerned about Psy’s upcoming new single release this Friday, but no one wants a war.



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