I saw a television commercial for a Korean bank recently in which the word “revolution” (hyeongmyeong, 혁명, 革命) was repeated several times. It was striking that a term once associated with the far left is used now so prevalently in contemporary South Korea.
But what exactly does the term “revolution” mean today, especially in this period of rapid social, economic and technological transformation?
The word “Revolution” in the bank commercial suggested a rapid transformation of how business is conducted, one that introduces vitality and inspires new confidence in institutions.
That use of “revolution” is related to the slogan “fourth industrial revolution,” one of the most popular topics for corporate and government publications (and seminars) these days. “Revolution” in that case suggests a profound transformation of the economy that is driven by unprecedented technological developments. The shifts, it is implied, offer tremendous opportunities for those who are prepared, but that there will be no space for success left for those who do not understand the new technologies.
Then there is the term “Candlelight Revolution,” used by the Minju Party to describe the public protests that forced former president Park Geun-hye to resign.
Such an expression suggests that, like the French Revolution, there will be a radical political reordering that will change everything. Yet the inability of the current administration (and the entire political order) to respond to the most serious issues of the current day such as the exponential concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and the refusal even to mention the word “climate change” in politics suggests that the expression “revolution,” was more spin than political reality.
And then there is the use of the word “revolution” in “Juice revolution” (쥬스혁명), the name of a trendy juice bar in downtown Seoul. In that case, “revolution” merely suggests a temporary thrill.
So has “revolution” become just an intensifier, a marketing tool that gives experiences greater impact?
For all the banality in this use of “revolution” in the media, the instability of the economy and social order in Korea has led many to doubt the ability of the democratic process to respond to current challenges, leading to discussions of revolutionary change (even if the word “revolution” is not employed).
Politics in South Korea over the last 20 years has been a tug of war between the conservatives who long for the past of rapid economic development and the progressives who want Korea to evolve into a kinder and fairer society _ largely modeled on western countries.
But that conservative/progressive dialectic in South Korean politics is a historical anomaly.
From the late 19th century through the 1990s, politics in Korea was a three-way fight between the conservatives, the progressives, and the revolutionaries.
The revolutionaries saw the complete remaking of the economy and of society as a precondition for any real change and considered progressive changes impossible within a moribund political system.
After the Korean War, such revolutionary politics disappeared from the South Korean political mainstream (although Park Chung-hee liked to use “revolution” to describe his reforms, much like President Moon Jae-in does), but it remained powerful in the politics of North Korea and also among student activists on the campuses of South Korean universities who also saw no use in the give and take of mainstream politics and who wanted an overthrow of the system.
So what will the word “revolution” mean in the future? The potential for a return to revolutionary politics in Korea (North and South) is considerable, especially as so many feel the current system so inflexible it is ineffective.
Moreover, the complete collapse of governance in the United States, a nation that has had profound influence on how Koreans perceive themselves, has led to deep doubts about all aspects of the political process.
And this questioning is taking place at precisely the time Korea faces fundamental challenges that bring all assumptions into question.
On the one hand, we stand on the edge of a massive global economic collapse, one that will be larger than the IMF crisis of 1997 or the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. This time, the crisis not only will bring financial hard times, but it will lead to a fundamental questioning of the wisdom of an economy grounded in corporate profits, deeply wedded to global trade and so dependent on imported fossil fuels.
At the same time, engagement with North Korea has reached such a momentum that it cannot be turned back. There is tremendous potential for Korea’s development to be found in the road toward unification, but we will also face challenges that we have not seen since the 1940s.
North Korea may not be that effective at industrial policy or farming, but the government is master of combining ethnic nationalism and revolutionary politics to mobilize the disenfranchised. Its power is not limited to nuclear weapons.
Korea, fortunately, has not seen a “Korea first” political mobilization similar to what happened in the United States, Japan, Hungary or Poland. The vast majority of citizens wish to follow global standards.
But financial hardship and the breakdown of institutions across the entire Korean Peninsula could well create such a movement.
Armchair analysts assume that shifts in Korean society will take decades, but evolutionary biology, seismology, and of course history, show that catastrophic changes in political systems are common, especially when there is ambiguity about their effectiveness.
Koreans, both north and south, will need to make good use of their imaginations, and of their consciences to make sure that we make the right decisions in the months ahead. We must remember that revolutionary change is not always a slick advertising slogan. Sometimes it means literally what it says.