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Civil society, democracy and the state in South Korea: a critical dialogue

Version 2 2024-06-03, 19:45
Version 1 2021-06-24, 08:12
journal contribution
posted on 2024-06-03, 19:45 authored by Danielle ChubbDanielle Chubb, H Joon Kim
This review will discuss Hun Joon Kim’s important work on political dissent in the Republic of Korea, The Massacres at Mt. Halla: sixty years of truth-seeking in South Korea (Massacres at Mt. Halla). This book tells the story of the six-decade-long grassroots campaign to establish a truth commission into the events around Jeju 4.3: a series of counterinsurgency actions against armed uprisings that resulted in the large-scale massacre of civilians as well as other atrocities. Political activism looms large in South Korea’s modern political history, making a major contribution to the evolution of democracy in that country. For decades, the main game, and the focus of most academic scholarship, was the establishment of full participatory democracy in the country. Yet, behind the scenes and on the peripheries, many lower profile battles have been fought and the fate of these struggles is in some ways the real test of democracy in South Korea (Republic of Korea or ROK). Drawing together a broad range of primary documentary and interview material, Massacres at Mt. Halla makes a number of important contributions to audiences in Korean Studies, International Relations, and transitional justice. Kim brings to English speakers an unprecedented insight into the uprising, counterinsurgency operations, and activist efforts to bring this chapter of South Korean history to light. Careful archival research is supplemented with detailed personal interview data, the majority of which is in the Korean language and thus previously inaccessible to a wider audience. The value here lies with a detailed narrative that traces grassroots activism from the days of authoritarian government through the varied challenges of a newly democratic nation. In its telling, this story illuminates the ways in which local activism can be derailed or suppressed in a tight security environment. In this case, the backdrop was a political environment strictly managed by the state on the grounds of a fervent anti-communist policy. Anti-communism was in fact the only state-sanctioned ideology, one which had the backing of the ROK’s powerful US military ally. As Kim’s research demonstrates in a clear way, any activism that could be perceived to deviate from this ideology was harshly dealt with. The dawn of progressive government in South Korea in 1997 brought an end to explicit ‘red-baiting’,1 as it was known, but did not overturn altogether the rigid anti-communist structures that had accompanied the development of the modern South Korean state. In the following discussion, I first provide a brief introduction to Kim’s book before focusing my attention in on what Massacres at Mt. Halla tells us about this interaction between national security discourse and civil society activism.


Alternative title

The Massacres at Mt. Halla: Sixty years of truth seeking in South Korea


Australian journal of political science






Abingdon, Eng.







Publication classification

C Journal article, C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal

Copyright notice

2016, Australian Political Studies Association