The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Reminiscences of 1980s Korea

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : March 26, 2019 - 17:09

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When I returned from the States to begin teaching at Seoul National University in the early 1980s, Korea’s socio-political turmoil reached its pinnacle. It was the time when Gen. Chun Doo-hwan seized power after a military coup and ruthlessly crushed students’ anti-government demonstrations on university campuses. The clashes between riot police shooting tear gas and teargassed students were rampant and became a daily ritual on Seoul National University campus, too.

At the time, students were divided into two groups. One was composed of the radical political activists who aggressively fought the dictatorial military government. They were ideologically-oriented, politically correct, and self-righteous radicals who preferred North Korea to South Korea that repressed them ruthlessly. They were proud of themselves as they believed that they were fighting for the Grand Cause and they represented justice, truth and democracy. The other group was made up of students who sympathized with the radicals, and yet who were reluctant to actively participate in anti-government demonstrations. They preferred to study, rather than to be politically engaged all the time. Inevitably, these peace-loving students suffered a sense of guilt.

In the English Department, those who majored in British literature were proud of themselves, whereas those who majored in American literature felt a totally unnecessary and unhealthy sense of guilt. For some inscrutable reason, radical students, who held anti-American sentiments, wrongfully thought the US was their enemy while the UK was not because the former was imperialist and the latter was not.

Unfortunately, radical students gradually resembled the military dictators they were fighting against. In the 1980s, for example, radical students often organized tyrannical campaigns ironically under the excuse of fighting the tyranny. For example, they frequently forced other students to sabotage the final exams. Of course, some students wanted to take the exam in order to step up to the next level or graduate. But radical students would not allow it because they thought such a selfish petty-bourgeois cause could be sacrificed for the Grand Cause.

During the radical students’ tyrannical campaign, I was proctoring the final exam of a class. There were some students taking the exam in the classroom. Suddenly, I noticed that someone was taking a photo of the students who were taking the exam. As a professor, I felt I needed to protect my students. Who knew? The photos might be used for retribution later. Thus, I got out of the exam room and quietly told the Peeping Tom to stop taking a photo and leave. Then, the radical student abruptly turned into a demonic figure, staring at me, cursing and vowing revenge on those who took the exam. Of course, they did not have any respect for their professors or parents; they only worshipped their political ideology. From his bloodshot eyes and demonic face saturated with hate that day, I saw another type of tyranny, or the same tyranny of the military dictators that they claimed to be fighting against. At that moment, I foresaw the grim future of Korea.

In addition, radical students often used false propaganda to mislead other students. Learning from Latin America, radical students maintained that Korea was a Third World country that was ruthlessly subordinated and extorted by America economically. But Korea was not a Third World country and never has been. Third World countries referred to some Latin American and African countries that were under the influence of neither the United States nor the Soviet Union. As a close ally of the States, Korea has always been a First World country. Besides, unlike Latin America, Korea has never been extorted by America economically. On the contrary, Korea’s economic prosperity has been in large part thanks to the US in many respects. Yet, the radical students’ slogan at that time was “Anti-war, anti-nuke, and Yankee, go home!”

Now, those former radical students have become professors, journalists and politicians. For the future of Korea, I strongly hope that they are no longer possessed by old grudges and vengeance and that their mental clocks did not stop in the 1980s but have kept on ticking. The world has changed now and we are living in the electronic age of the 21st century. Of course, without their sacrifices and contributions, we could not have enjoyed today’s freedom and democracy. However, Marxism turned out to be a complete failure and the military dictatorship, too, disappeared once and for all now. Thus, we should not be haunted by the specters of the past any more.

We cannot afford to repeat the past. We should move on to the future. During the military dictatorship, for example, we were appalled when a right-wing dictator banned such beautiful songs as “Morning Dew” simply because they allegedly inspired the spirit of resistance. Now we are equally disheartened when some radicals try to ban school songs simply because they were composed by allegedly pro-Japan composers a long time ago.

Recalling the 1980s, we should keep Nietzsche’s warning in mind: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.