Over that last two decades, South Korea has witnessed major social, economic, and political transformations. From democratization to economic modernization, these transformations have reshaped the life of Korean citizens and the very meaning of citizenship itself. In her book Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea, sociologist Seungsook Moon explores this reconfiguration of citizenship from a feminist and post-colonial perspective. According to Moon, militarized modernity has characterized both state and socio-economic development in post-war South Korea. The author "conceived the notion of militarized modernity to illuminate (...) three processes of socio-political and economic formation: the construction of the modern nation as an anti-communist polity, the making of its members as duty-bound 'nationals,' and the integration of male conscription into the organization of the industrializing economy" (p. 2).
The first part is devoted to the historical and sociological analysis of these processes, underlining the central role of male conscription in the gendered construction of political and economic membership in post-war South Korea. Although many men perceived conscription as a burden, military service reinforced the existing patriarchal model while providing economic advantages to veterans through an "extra-points system" that helped them secure good civilian jobs. Additionally, a close relationship existed between the military and public occupational training. Overall, Moon depicts post-war South Korea as an authoritarian and militaristic society in which violent coercion and Foucauldian discipline worked hand in hand to suppress dissent. Violent repression took place not only in the streets, but also in offices and factories where employers could beat undisciplined workers. Moreover, the state developed powerful surveillance and social control mechanisms that included state-sponsored mass organizations. Grounded in traditional gender roles that considerably reduced women's employment and political opportunities, post-war South Korea went as far outlawing excessively long hair on men and too short skirts for women!
The second part analyzes the push for democratic citizenship in South Korea since the 1980s, with a specific focus on labour mobilization and women's associations. According to Moon, the struggle for modern social and political rights participated in the decline of militarized modernity and the creation of a more inclusive and egalitarian society. Yet, for her, the push for citizenship rights took a gendered form, and women's mobilization followed a significantly different logic than men's. On the one hand, the labour movement represented the main nexus of men's quest for citizenship rights and socio-economic recognition. On the other hand, autonomous women's organizations formed the core of women's path to modern citizenship. Furthermore, interclass alliances became more central in women's than in men's mobilization. For Moon, this fact reflects "the ambiguous class positions of women in Korean society. Marginalized in the industrializing economy as the secondary labor force, a majority of women have structurally occupied less definite class positions than men." (p. 171) Through these distinct patterns of mobilization, women experienced the elimination of major forms of employment discrimination, including the "extra-points system" for (male) veterans. Campaigns against sexual harassment and some in favour of maternity leave and better child-care were also launched. Despite their mixed results, such campaigns improved the status of women in South Korean society. All in all, social mobilization during the 1980s and 1990s transformed the meaning and the content of South Korean citizenship. This process spelled the end of militarized modernity and the emergence of a less repressive and more egalitarian social and political order that is still in the making.
Concise and well-written, this book is grounded in a solid knowledge of South Korean history and society as well as an adequate command of the literature on citizenship and gender relations. Yet, it is only in the book's conclusion that the discussion of such literature becomes truly systematic. This means that major theoretical issues regarding gender, discipline, and social mobilization are under-explored. Moreover, the comparative discussion involving countries like China and Japan could have been more systematic. Also, the author pays little attention to formal political processes and institutions, such as the role of political parties and their relationship with the labor and the women's movements. The social movement literature suggests that state structures and party systems matter, and the book would have gained from a discussion of these issues. Finally, the book could have engaged with the growing scholarship about "how social movements matter" (e.g. Amenta and Caren, 2004; Giugni, McAdam and Tilly, 1999), as the empirical material suggests that South Korea is a case of rather "successful" mobilization waves.
But these few critical remarks should not deter scholars interested in citizenship, democratization, gender relations, or East Asian societies to read and engage with this stimulating and carefully researched monograph. The book addresses a number of crucial historical and theoretical issues in a way that other scholars could find useful. For example, it would be interesting to use the concept of militarized modernity for the comparative analysis of cases ranging from Italian fascism to Suharto's Indonesia. Overall, this is a thought-provoking book, and a must read for scholars interested in contemporary South Korean society.
Department of Sociology
University of Calgary
© Canadian Journal of Sociology Online