THIS IS THE 33rd in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, a professor of cultural studies and founding director of Global Center for Technology in Humanities at Kyung Hee University. In 2013, he organized “The Idea of Communism” conference with Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek and co-edited, with Žižek, The Idea of Communism 3: The Seoul Conference (Verso, 2016).
Banner image: Hong Song-dam, “May-27 Daedong Sesang.” 1984
BRAD EVANS: We often hear politicians talking about living within the “shadow of annihilation.” And yet for Koreans living on both sides of the military demarcation line, such a threat seems all too real. What does annihilation mean to people living in the region today?
ALEX TAEK-GWANG LEE: In both North and South Korea, the feeling of annihilation occupies a permanent presence in our collective imaginations. We are unified in potential destruction. Annihilation clouds every judgment. It lies in wait, concealed in everyday aspects of life. That it hasn’t happened only goes to prove that someday down the line things might just explode. And yet its normalization is easy to glimpse at through everyday realities. Such is the terror of its distortions. But what is clear is that Korean people are living out a social horror, whose ends lurk in the dimension of the sensible. We continue to look to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a warning for our futures. But it is so much more than the bomb. We know of its destructive potential, we have lived that nightmare, over and over. It’s about the destruction of all we know, our ecologies for life. In this regard, we have come to view history like a continuous natural disaster; we await the inevitable eruption, which is never truly under our control. This infects our politics, and in many ways, shapes every aspect of our identity.
The ghost of the Korean War still hovers over the peninsula like an eschatological force that continues to shape how the world sees us. We appear like a truly schizophrenic peoples — advanced yet always in the shadow of annihilation. The ideological collision that gave rise to that devastating war has shaped the unconscious, leading to the types of postwar nation-building in both nations. These were consciously reductive. What peoples in the West tend to term the Cold War for us remains one of the hottest wars in history. And the borders demarcating the lines between the North and South Korea are the crystallization by the tensions of these historical process, like a fragile insect of peace precariously walking upon a razor’s edge, finding no comfort in the suspension of warfare. It is not the end of the war, but the delay of its ending. It’s like somebody forgot to replace the battery in our doomsday clock, but it still desires to keep on ticking.
There is often a familiar caricature we see played out in Western media today, where the South is presented as a liberal space of peace and prosperity in need of protecting, while the North a contemporary manifestation of what the United States once called the “evil empire” in the context of communism. How might we rethink such crude distinctions in terms of the history of violence?
It is very common and somewhat easy to caricature and to demonize North Korea as a “rogue state” or “axis of evil.” Of course, some of the statistics in terms of poverty and starvation, not to mention the curtailment of political freedoms, are terrifying. But we can certainly say the same for many other regimes across the world. What’s always struck me is how the country officially calls itself the “Democratic People’s” Republic of Korea. The tautological naming of the regime in this way invites many explanations of its symbolic meaning. No doubt, there is an epistemological gap between what it is seen from without and what it is identified within. Before passing crude judgments, we do need to know more of the internal logic of the regime, and gain a better understanding of how it works, its systems of power, its contradictions and possible sites for resistance and struggle, which seem to elude us.
In the early 1990s, as widely reported, there was an extreme famine in North Korea. Not only was this seen as a humanitarian disaster, but many experts predicted the collapse of the country and the fall of its leadership. But instead, the regime survived and not only that, it developed a nuclear weapon, which changed everything. If we think about this for just a second, we can see the most astounding contradictions. Through the famine crisis, the North Korean government was seemingly inoperative, failing to distribute the most basic daily necessities including food. And yet it still managed to organize itself to produce the deadliest of weapons known to humans. This would shatter the very idea that the advancement in civilization and advancement in weaponry marched hand in hand. But what does it say about a regime, about a people, which does not protest or revolt against their rulers, but instead voluntarily organized themselves in live in such conditions? Had the people learned that a fate worse than violence from the top, is the fear of a more violent situation without the state? It would be easy just to say this is all about internal oppression and the denial of all resistance. But in my opinion, North Korea is not a failed state, but the way it has reduced everything to a question of survival makes it a quintessential example of the Hobbesian Leviathan — North Koreans are a “democratic people,” in the most securitarian sense. They are not a multitude, but tied to a particular social contract with sovereignty, tacitly ceding their rights to the “respectful” and “lovely” leader of the republic.
Seen this way, the reality of North Korea is not far from the liberal formulae of the early modern Western countries. In fact, what is presented as a monstrous “rogue state” is nothing less than the ultimate incarnation of Western modernity. A state that demands total allegiance to its progressive vision, where politics is reduced to questions of pure survival, where sovereignty is the principal determinant, and where the rule of law is used in the most brutal of ways. This is not a defense of North Korea, but if we wish to criticize the regime, its violence, let us be consistent in what and how we apply our criticisms.
When developing any meaningful critique of violence, we are often drawn to the importance of arts and aesthetics. What do you think is particularly novel and compelling about Korean art when it comes to critiquing recent tragedy and the lived experience of urban destruction?
One of the cruelest episodes of violence that occurred in contemporary Korean history was carried out by the military dictatorship in Gwangju in 1980. After the assassination of Park Chung-hee, a strongman who ruled South Korea for 18 years since the May 16 coup in 1961, Chun Doo-hwan staged another coup in December 12 and attempted to take over power in 1979. However, due to the revival of people’s demand for democracy, Chun and his followers could not easily reveal their ambition to get into another dictatorship. They needed an excuse to crush the democratization movements. In those days, the strongest resistance came from the universities. This was inspired by what students learned from Latin America, notably Mexico. The expelled students during Park’s regime returned to the campus and started to organize nationwide demonstrations against the plot to set up another military dictatorship, which would no doubt have still been supported by Western leaders with their own claims on the region. Students calling for anti-martial law led to the gathering of some 100,000 students and citizens who participated in a huge demonstration in Seoul Station in May 15, 1980. Chun then felt threatened and forced the cabinet to extend martial law to the whole country in May 17.
The Gwangju massacre took place in this background. What began as a student uprising against imposed martial law resulted in mass killings and rapes taking place in the streets. This was an act of brutal violence carried out with the Southern regime to warn against any resistance. Gwangju massacre was not simply the accidental enactment of the state violence on innocent people, but instead the return of military atrocity in the Cold War period. The bloodbath was the revenant of global violence brought up by the geopolitics of Cold War.
The commanders of the troops sent to the city were part of the same killing machines trained in the Vietnam War and so easily ordered and routinely enacted the massacre of civilians. The clandestine special forces first fired without hesitation into the crowd who gathered around the town hall of Gwangju and stabbed the unarmed people with the military knives. The parallels with the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico in 1968 were very apparent. They even murdered a pregnant young woman who waited for her husband on the street and chased people running away, shooting guns and beating them to death. The tragic massacre, however, proved to be a catalyst for radical social movements and paved a way toward the democratization of South Korea from below.
Many artists have attempted to overcome the overwhelming sadness and the fearful memory of this atrocity by representing or reactivating the revolutionary experiences of Gwangju. Those artistic practices have been categorized today as Minjung art. Minjung art was a radical movement and tried to abolish aesthetic elitism by engaging the political scenes from 1970s onward. Minjung refers to those people who are at the bottom of society, though it also includes intellectuals, journalists, and civil rights advocates too.
There were two groups to participate in the movement: one was Association of Minjung Artists, and the other was Alliance of Minjung Artists. What made the difference between two societies was how one understood Minjung art. The former thought that the artistic tradition is still important to create Minjung art, while the latter believed that aesthetic convention as such is the crystallization of reactionary power to repress the revolutionary spirit and should be rejected for artistic engagement. For this reason, Minjung art has been seen as something that rejects both the influences of the West and orthodox communist propaganda. And again, the notable influence from Mexico. However, the art does have its contradictions, as it now attracts the attention of the art world, it has also been commodified and reveals the constantly lurking dilemma of recreating a tradition in a modern and appropriated form, furthering avant-garde engagement.
For instance, while the Minjung artists mantra of attacking art for art’s sake, brought forth collective artistic practices such as mural painting, woodcut printing, installment, performance, and so on, it is clear that those forms of practical aesthetics were already conducted by radical avant-garde artists in the “Third World” (i.e., the Global South today), as well as China and Japan. In fact, the artistic movements in the regions were categorized “reportage art” and were clearly inclined to the utopian amalgam of nationalism and communism. Nationalism was necessary to mobilize people for the communist agenda and thus, in many instances, turned to be the main theme of revolutionary art in the areas sharing colonial experiences. I would say that aspects of Korean Minjung art were not that exceptional then in the way they eventually shifted from a truly revolutionary rupture to the all too familiar bringing together of nationalism and socialism for its political vision. The utopian assertion of the political integration mostly rendered the imaginary community in Benedict Anderson’s sense. Minjung art was in this vein the utopian project to (re-)present a nation as an ideal commune.
A group of artists, including Shin Hak-chul, often described the nation as the pre-modern imaginary community of a rural life, whereas some artists, like Hong Song-dam, emphasized the ideal commune of an urban life enlightened in the moment of May ’80 in Gwangju. Innumerable unknown artists also challenged the distinction between art and non-art, striving to dismantle the institutionalized credence of art. However, what they ultimately brought out in terms of Minjung art was the liberated nation and so their slogans were mainly about national liberation. Huge hanging paintings depicted the history of national liberation movements and were made to agitate people, and the images they produced could easily be used for the banner of political demonstration in any site. This raises some critical questions as to why Korean Minjung artists were so obsessed with nationalism, even though some of them were supportive to workers’ movements whose rights were evidently being destroyed by the state.
As I implied above, my answer would be that Korean Minjung art is nothing less than a symptomatic consequence of the repressed references to the Non-Aligned Movement in the Third World. That is to say, Minjung art is the aesthetic attempt to reimagine or invent the land of the forgotten people who are missing: the term Minjung (민중, 民衆) is the code word of “people” (인민, 人民) to avoid censorship during the 1980s. In that regard, it served an important aesthetic and political function. In those days, the term “people” often directly alluded to North Korea because of the official title of the country. However, the term “the people” for the Minjung suggested something different, even though there were evident contradictions. “People” would be understood as the members of a “modern state” who make a contract with government. The term “people” presupposed here a free individual consisting of modern democracy; meanwhile, the term Minjung does not presume such an individual, but instead the equal members of national community, who were supposed to exist before the establishment of a modern state. In this sense, the term Minjung as such should be understood as a utopian solution, i.e., a symbolic act, to the traumatic experiences of the irresistible state violence in reality, but a symbolic act that could also be easily appropriated.
To conclude, we have recently marked the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square in China. The photograph of the lone protestor still haunts us and continues to paint a damning picture of the regime and its legacy of political suppression. What do those events mean for contemporary thinkers in South Korea? And what lessons can be taken from them in terms of developing a new radical imagination from outside of the Eurocentric world?
I was an undergraduate student when the Tiananmen slaughter took place. Like many in my country, I saw the scene of violence on the television. It was a shocking image that left a strong impression and pushed many, including myself, to reflect on my naïve approach to communism, especially its Chinese variation. Before the events, students like me searched for alternative politics to solve the problem of our country, and both the Soviet Union and the Chinese model seemed a possible solution — at least in terms of overcoming economic injustice. I am sure Tiananmen for us had the same impact on some leftists here as the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in Europe in the 1970s.
When trying to make sense of the Tiananmen massacre, I encountered Walter Benjamin’s critique of violence, which led me to study further the relationship between justice and law. It also made myself and friends rethink the relationship between radical politics, political change, and how this can sometimes lead to the most devastating outcomes. We would discuss Martin Heidegger’s dilemma that took him to Nazism, a dilemma in which the radical imagination ends up choosing the worst of all possibilities.
But what Tiananmen also showed was that history was never determined and people do still resist. Just look at what’s happening in Hong Kong today! The world that we live in is not natural and necessarily given, but shaped by many contingent encounters in history. If the so-called world order we have today is the by-product of international relations after World War II, that system is nevertheless deeply vulnerable as well. This should allow us to purposefully reflect on the rupture of the utopian impulse, even if its breaks mostly failed to bring about an alternative regime. The lonely protestor in Tiananmen surely remains the most powerful indicator of the hidden resistance, revealing the cracks in the lineal representation of history saturated by an oppressive and ultimately Eurocentric gaze. His shadow shows how the repressed always returns. Resistance in this regard is both infinite and singular. And this infinite capacity for resistance can be the starting point for rewriting history in more humane and globally astute ways.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.