The legacy of authoritarianism and people’s movements.
“Minjung Theology is dead.”
This obituary was whispered to me with more than a hint of regret by a third generation minjung theologian during a research trip to South Korea. The “minjung” (a term to denote the masses, or the “people”) was a hallmark of South Korea’s democracy movement. But as ubiquitous as the minjung sentiment was in the 1980s, manifest not only in political rhetoric but also in music, art, literature, philosophy, and theology, you would be hard-pressed to find remnants of it today in South Korean politics and society.
While some lament the death of the democracy movement—a “glorious” movement when the people rose up to fight tyranny and injustice—others see it as the natural trajectory of a nation that made the transition to democratic governance. Riding the “third wave of democracy,” South Korea reinstituted direct presidential elections in 1987 (rescinded in 1972) and today, enjoys a relatively stable democratic polity. The peaceful transitions of power between South Korea’s conservative and progressive parties are sure signs that South Korea is now a functioning, if not always peaceful, democracy.
Though the 1970s are considered by many to be the “dark age for democracy” in Korea, it was in the crucible of this repressive decade that a sustained movement for democracy emerged.