the Transformation of (South) Korea 1989–2009 Ji Yoon Moon

I am from the last generation of South Koreans who actually received formal anticommunist education in school, so I clearly remember the shock of watching the live TV coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the mood of the era was rapidly changing. It was the beginning of the transformation. Just a year earlier, in 1989, we had hosted our first Olympic games—a symbol of success in terms of modernization for most developing countries. The peaceful revolution of spring 1986 revitalized the direct voting system. From 1993 to 2007, three democratic governments held power. Nonetheless, the political mood was transformed once again in 2008 when a new right-wing government was elected. Many political analysts believed that it represented a punishment for the failures of the “386 generation” (born in the 1960s, educated in the 1980s, in their 30s in the 1990s; the political term derives from the Intel 386 microprocessor, developed in the 1980s). Ironically, it was the 386 generation which implemented the ideology of “leftist nationalism” that had emerged during the Japanese colonization (1910–1945) by acquiring central power in the political and social realms. Everybody believed a long cherished dream had finally come true, but we soon began to witness a strange mutation due to its achievements and failures. One of the major symptoms of this mutation occurred in the usage of certain terms which became detached from their original meanings and were exploited in such a way that paradoxes resulted, and the terms eventually became indefinable.

I / Mad Cow Disease

The term was included in the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 1987. The dictionary meaning of “mad cow disease” is “a fatal prion disease of cattle that affects the nervous system, resembles or is identical to scrapie of sheep and goats, and is probably transmitted by infected tissue in food.”

In 2008, a candlelight demonstration was induced when the pro-Bush government decided to resume the importation of American beef which had temporarily been banned due to a mad cow disease scare in North America. Nobody expected that this act would bring the new administration such serious political and social criticism. One of the surprising aspects of the demonstration was that it consisted of “groups uninterested in politics” which had entered the political realm for the first time—for instance, housewives who were more highly educated than those of previous generations, or high school students who were now equipped with unprecedented technological devices such as 3G mobile phones became principal actors in the political struggle. Their transformation into active political participants changed the shared understanding of the antigovernment movement. As a consequence, the simple expression “mad cow disease” was transformed into a powerful political term that signified a turning point in the Korean political landscape.

II / New Town

The term was included in the Merriam Webster dictionary in 1918. The dictionary meaning of “new town” is “an urban development comprising a small to medium-sized city with a broad range of housing and planned industrial, commercial, and recreational facilities.”

The current president of South Korea was formerly the CEO of Korea’s largest construction company. A famous phrase by one of the members of his administration, “we cannot let the river flow as it is,” highlights the powerful ideology of the generation which transformed an extremely poor state into one of the major economic powers in the world. The old values, beliefs, and traditions were relinquished in the name of progress. Many urban development projects which had been abandoned due to environmental concerns or social justice issues were revived as the crusade of the new. This February, a shocking incident—unprecedented even under the dictatorship—took place. Six people, including a policeman, were killed during the suppression of a protest against the demolition of a district to make way for a “new town plan.” This occurred less than 24 hours after the demonstrators had started their protest. A special police unit trained for the “war against terror” was marshaled against a mere two-dozen demonstrators who simply wanted to stand up for their rights, which were being threatened by the massive development plan. The word, “new town” acquired a new connotation in contemporary Korean society. It came to denote a site where the ideology of progress and that of tradition confronted each other and led to an extreme situation in which mistrust and hatred eventually led to bloodshed.