Nationalism: An advocate of, or a barrier to, feminism in South Korea

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download


  • Pergamon Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 19, Nos. 1/2, pp. 65-74, 1996

    Copyright 1996 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in the USA. All rights reserved

    0277-5395/96 $15.00 + .00

    SSDI 0277-5395(95)00063-1

    NATIONALISM An Advocate of, or a Barrier to, Feminism in South Korea

    KYUNC-AI K~M Wolsung Jukong Apartment 407-602, Wolsung-dong, Dalseo-ku, Daegu, South Korea

    Synopsis - - Nationalism was closely linked to issues concerning women's traditional behavioural norms, the status of women, and the emergence of the femininst movement in Korea in the period of Enlightenment and Japanese annexation. Nationalists urged the abolition of the Confucian legacy of sex- ual discrimination against women to reform society. The struggle for women's emancipation was, thus, an essential and integral part of the national resistance movement against imperialism in Korea. Nationalism and feminism supported each other during the era of Enlightenment and Japanese colonial rule. However, in the 1980s, nationalism functioned in a totally different way. It criticised "westernisa- tion," advocating support of Korean traditional culture. Feminism was regarded as a western import and, therefore, was suspect to some nationalists. Nationalism could be both an advocate of, and a barrier to, feminism in relation to an evaluation of tradition.


    Due to its geograph ic pos i t ion, Korea has always been vulnerable to expansionist threats from China and the Mongols. In the 19th cen- tury, Korea faced the reality of aggression and conquest from western powers and western- ised Japan, which threatened its national iden- tity. Modern Korean nationalism emerged as a response to imperial ism on the eve of coloni- sation by western countries and Japan. It con- tended that Korea should be strong enough to maintain its sovereignty and political indepen- dence, and that Korean soc iety in terna l ly should be modernised by reforming existing structures and cultural tradit ions in order to success fu l ly w i ths tand imper ia l i sm. The Korean people were, thus, externally inspired to struggle against and resist foreign interven- tion and domination, asserting their national ident i ty in the process . Nat iona l i sm ques- tioned women's traditional behavioural norms and roles based on Confucian teaching in rela- t ion to the re form of Korean society. The movements for changing women's posit ions and roles were closely l inked with the emer- gence of nat iona l i sm in Korea. This paper a ims to show how nat iona l i sm was and is

    related to feminism in Korea since the late 18th century.


    The Enlightenment era: The late ] 8th century to 1894

    Confucian ideology, which was adopted as a state re l ig ion dur ing the Chosun Dynasty (1393-1910), dominated Korean society, par- t icularly regarding women. According to the Confuc ian de f in i t ion o f the re la t ionsh ip between men and women, "there should be attention to the differences between husband and wife" (Bubuyubyeul). Women were regu- lated in terms of roles, behaviour, and living and social space. Firstly, roles should be strict- ly divided by sex. The Confucian teaching on the d i f ferences between husband and wife assigned women to domestic responsibilities as mothers and wives inside the home and men to the public sphere. Secondly, there were differ- ences in the behaviour of men and women. Women should be weak and tender, and men should be strong. The Confucian definition of the difference was also interpreted as women



    being inferior to men. Women were supposed to obey three authorities, fathers when young, husbands when married, and sons when wid- owed (Samjonggido) throughout their life cycle. Thirdly, women were to be separated from men in living and social space: Women were defined as "the person inside the home" (an saram). Women were supposed to spend most of their lives at home, secluded entirely from the outside world. Women were strongly discouraged from going outside the home. The rule confining women to the home was ulti- mately related to the segregation of women from men for the sake of chastity (Han Myong- Sook, 1985, p. 40). Chastity before marriage and fidelity after marriage were strictly demand- ed. Women were liable to expulsion from the home by their husbands' families if they com- mitted adultery - - one of the Seven Evils. Women's fidelity had to be prolonged after their husbands' deaths.

    Emphasis on a woman's sexual fidelity to her husband in Confucian ideology was imple- mented in Korean society by coercion through law, inducements through various means from compensation by the state, and socialization (Lee Ock-Kyung, 1985, pp. 38-63). A law pro- hibiting the remarriage of widowed women, Jae-Ga, was introduced in 1477. The children of women who did remarry suffered serious d isadvantages: For instance, the law Jaeganyojasongumgobup, promulgated in 1485, excluded them from the civil service, consid- ered to be very important by the Yang-ban (aristocrats), as it ensured prosperity for the family and kin.

    The families of women who were nominat- ed as Yeol-yeo (women of virtue) received prizes, mainly in the form of rice from the state and exemption from compulsory work for the state. For the families of the humble, the nomination of one of the women in the family as Yeol-yeo could be a rare opportunity to rise a notch, to the commoner class. These kinds of compen- sation were important for people of all classes in this period (Lee Ock-Kyung, 1985, pp. 45-48).

    The concept of the difference between men and women in early Confucianism was devel- oped into, and closely associated with, discrim- ination against and subordination of women. A Korean woman should be a faithful wife, a devoted daughter-in-law, and a self-sacrificing mother inside the home, and denied a role in pub-

    lic life. Obedience and endurance were the most important behavioural norms for women.

    Korean women's traditionally subordinate position and roles were questioned, on the one hand, by the influence of foreign religions and customs which were introduced by Christian missionaries and Korean intellectuals who travelled to the United States and Japan in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries. On the other hand, Korean nationalism was based on the Donghak Sasang (The Eastern School of Thought), 1 which was invented by a Korean intel lectual, Choi Jae-Woo in 1860. This nationalism advocated women's equality with men at the end of the Chosun Dynasty.

    Firstly, the concept of equity for all men and women before God in Catholicism, which was introduced into Korea in the late 18th century, inspired Korean women to question their sta- res. This concept was one of the most impor- tant factors motivating Korean women to enter the Catholic church (Kim Young-Chung, 1976, p. 197).

    Secondly, Koreans, who were informed about women in the west and in Japan, sup- ported the change in Korean women's role and status. Yu Kil-Chun had been sent to the United States as a member of a diplomatic mission in 1883. One of his most significant impressions was the posit ion and status of women in American society and their employment in var- ious activities and professions outside the home. In 1892, in Soyu Kyonmunrok (An Account of Travels in the West), he called for the equali- ty of men and women in Korean society, reporting on women's status in the United States. Park Younghyo, a former government official, in exile in Japan after being involved in a failed coup, presented a memorandum to the King in which he petitioned for the prohibi- tion of the mistreatment of women by their husbands, the legalisation of remarriage for widows, the prohibition of concubinage and child marriage, equal education for girls, and the abolition of Naeoebup (the rigid rule of segregation). During this time, Korean intellec- tuals thought that Korean society should be reformed to parallel that of advanced countries. Western or Japanese women's position in their societies obviously provided a good example for the future of Korean women, and for new ideas concerning women.

    The equity of men and women was also clearly presented in the Donghak Sasang (The

  • Nationalism and Feminism in South Korea 67

    Eastern School of Thought), the basis of the indigenous nationalist movement. It urges that all humans have their own God in their minds (Sichunju) and, therefore, they are all equal regardless of class, caste, and sex (Kim Kyung- Ai, 1983, p. 12). Choi Si-Hyong, the second leader of the Donghak movement, preached that women should not be ignored but should be respected (Kim Kyung-Ai, 1983, p. 38). He also appreciated women's abilities, predicting that women would participate in society and make a contribution to its development (Park Young-Ock, 1981, p. 128). These thoughts and teachings were sharply different from Confucian teaching on women.

    The Donghak Sasang's concern with women was clear in the Donghak revolutionary move- ment in the early 1890s. 2 In the Twelve Programmes for social reform, which were endorsed in the revolution of 1894, the Donghak group demanded the legalisation of remarriage for women. But the Donghak revolution was suppressed by the army and the demand was not met. Soon after the suppression of the revolu- tion, the laws prohibiting women from remar- riage and their offspring from taking govern- ment examinations to become public officials were lrmally dissolved. Support for the Yeol-yeo from the state was abolished. Indigenous nation- alism, as well as western influences, thus, helped to question the traditionally subordinate roles and status of Korean women.


    The Enlightenment era: 1894-1910

    After the suppression of the nationalists' Donghak revolution, intervention from Japan, China, and Russia intensified in the peninsula. Korean nationalists continued to encourage the people to struggle for political independence from other countries. Reforming the feudal society was seen as a prerequisite for fighting against foreign aggression. The Tokrip Hyuphoe (the Independence Club), which was founded by nationalist intellectuals in 1896, played a key role in advocating the reform of society through its newspaper, Tokrip Sinmun (The Independence). The newspaper severely criti- cised the social norms concerning women and called for the abolition of sexual discrimina- tion, patriarchal authoritarianism, child mar-

    riage, concubinage, and Naeoebup (the rigid rule of sex segregation; Lee Hyochae, 1989, p. 34). In particular, it strongly urged women's education in its articles, citing the examples of western countries in which women took part in polit ics through education (Lee Hyochae, 1989, p. 35). The newspaper contended: "Women's education will let women recover their rights from discrimination, their children get beloved teachers, their husbands have beautiful friends, and the country be civilised" (Tokrip Sinmun, 26 May 1899, cited in Lee Hyochae, 1989, p. 35 ). This paper was at the forefront of the campaign for women's educa- tion, urging education for women not only as wives and mothers but also as citizens.

    The pioneers of women's education in Korea were Christian missionaries. They focussed on women's education and made efforts to set up schools for the first time in Korea. In 1886, Mrs. Scranton of the Methodist Church opened a school, Ewha Hakdang, which developed into Ewha Womans University. The educational aim was to pro- duce women missionaries and good house- wives. Orphans, concubines of rich men, and daughters of poor families formed the majority of the students of the school, together with some daughters of enlightened intellectuals and upper-class families.

    In 1898, for the first time in Korean history, a girls' school was launched by Korean women. Korean upper-class women, with support from other classes of women who were inspired by the Tokrip Huphoe and its newspaper, set up Changyang-hoe, a women's organisation to support women's education. Approximately 100 members of the organisation signed and submitted a petition to the King to establish a public school for women. This was the first women's polit ical activity in the Chosun Dynasty. Despite the King's positive response to the petition, a women's public school was not immediately established. The organisation launched its own school, Sunsong Gir ls ' School, in 1898. This was the first school for women established by Korean women in the history of the country. The founding statement of the school was, in fact, a declaration of women's rights, the first such statement by women in Korea:

    The King is at pains to build a civilised and enlightened country. Our 20 million people

  • 68 Kvtn~c-A[ ICdM

    are now trying to discard old customs and follow new ones. How should we, women.. depend on our husbands' income and be controlled by our husbands inside the home . . ? Men have oppressed women with power and women have been confined to the home and forced to do only housework. How do women, who have the same body as men have, do only housework inside the home. . . ? Let us found a girls' school and send girls to school as has been done in other countries. Through education, women can be the same human beings as men. Please, register as a member to support this movement, (Tokrip Sinmun, 9 August 1899, cited in Park Young-Ock, 1975, p. 60)

    It called for women's education, not only to share the burden of enlightenment as men did, but also as a means for women to achieve the same rights as men (Park Young-Ock, 1975, p. 61; Kim Young-Chung, 1976, pp. 249-50).

    The success of Sunsong Girls' School led to the advent of many women's organisations to promote women's education and, as a result, 96 girls' schools were established throughout the country from 1905 to 1910 (Yoon Hye-Won, 1987, p. 157). Among the organisations, not only nationalist women supported women's education, but also the wives of high-ranking pro-Japanese Korean and Japanese government officials. However, the educational purpose of the latter was to educate a woman to be "a wise mother and a good wife." They emphasised tra- ditional women's roles and submissive behav- ioural norms (Park Young-Ock, 1975, pp. 198-199).

    Education had been discouraged for women, as summed up in an old Korean saying: "Women who cannot count the number of spoons in their households are blessed with good luck," and, cited in a book by Lee Ick, a famous Confucian scholar in the Chosun Dynasty: "Women need not to know, but to follow" (quoted from Shon Kyu-Bok, 1972, p. 98). Claims that women should be educated were revolutionary during this era. Furthermore, education challenged the behavioural norm of women's confinement to the home because it encouraged women to go outside the home to attend school. Moreover, nationalists asserted that women should be educated not only to be good mothers and wives, but also to obtain equality with men and share the same role as

    men in society. Education supported women in overcoming traditional Confucian behavioural norms. Eventually, professional women (e.g., doctors, teachers, nurses, poets, and writers), emerged through education in Korea and abroad in the 20th century.



    The Enlightenment era and the early stages of Japanese rule: 1905-1919

    After Japan had defeated China and Russia, there was an increased threat of Japanese impe- rialism and aggression in Korea The Korean people tried to find ways to keep their indepen- dence from Japan. On the one hand, a guerilla war against Japanese colonialism was launched by Confucians and farmers in 1905 and strength- ened when former soldiers of the Korean army, which was forcibly dissolved by Japan in 1907, joined it. According to Park Young-Ock (1984, pp. 148-156), women also took part in the war against Japan. Yoon Hee-Soon was one of those who encouraged women to participate in the war, saying in her "A Song for Women Guerillas" that women had taken care of their families, but this was not enough when the state was in danger. She herself organised a women's squad with 30 women, and they were trained as warriors. They made chemical weapons and foods and washed clothes for male fighters in ~e battlefields as well as rais- ing funds for them. Furthermore, they fought against the Japanese in the battlefields (Lee Hyochae, 1989, p. 63). The women, who had been "persons confined to the inner realm," performing domestic responsibilities, went out of the home to the battlefields and fought against Japanese imperialism. When they were defeated, they were exiled and continued the movement for independence in Manchuria.

    On the other hand, Korean people realised that the Japanese threat was due to the national debt to Japan and campaigned to pay this back from 1907 to 1910. Women actively participat- ed in the Movement for Repayment of the National Debt. Nationalist aristocrats and upper-class women led the movement. However, women of all class levels, including Kiseang (entertainers for men in restaurants), traders, and women in religious groups took part in the

  • Nationalism and Feminism in South Korea 69

    Movement and organised approximately 30 women's groups nationwide. They collected money, rice, and jewellery. Furthermore, it was suggested that women's status would be enhanced through their participation in the Movement. The founding statement of one women's organisation said:

    Loyalty to the nation and duty as people are not different between men and women . . . . Men and women are equal but Korean women do not study but are busy sewing and cooking and do not know their duty as peop le . . . Each of us is one of 20 million people . . . When we repay the national debt, we will not only recover national sovereign- ty but also achieve equal rights between men and women through revealing women's power . . . . We, women, let us unite and donate our rings. (Jekuk Sinmum, 23 April 1907, cited in The Research Centre for Korean Women, 1992, p. 33)

    Even though the Movement was not suc- cessful in recovering the sovereignty of the Chosun Dynasty, participation in the Movement was very significant for Korean women. They clearly realised women's inequality in society and struggled for women's rights as well as for national sovereignty. Moreover, the Movement provided opportunities for many women to become involved in a political activity. Women were allowed to join the political struggles because of the crisis. Women who participated in these movements came out of their seclusion and organised themselves for a political pur- pose, which would probably have been impos- sible in a period of peace. Women's experience seemed to develop through the independence and feminist movements during the Japanese colonial period.

    Despite the efforts of many nationalists, the Korean peninsula was forcibly occupied by Japan in 1910. The most important and largest scale protest against Japanese colonialism was the Independence Declaration Movement on I March 1919 in the wake of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson declaring "The Principle of Self-Determination by People." When almost all Korean people staged a demonstration demanding independence from Japan, female students, professionals, women of all religions (e.g., Chondokyo [Donghak], Christianity, and Buddhism), played a key role in demonstrat-

    ing. The women, educated in Christian mis- sionary schools and public schools, regardless of their educational goals, played significant roles in the independence movement. 3 In par- ticular, schools became centres of nationalism for female students under Japanese rule (The Research Centre for Korean Women, 1992, p. 36). One of the most prominent of these pro- testers was Yu Kwan-Soon, a student of Ewha, who was arrested after organising a series of demonstrations. She kept protesting against the Japanese annexation of Korea whilst in prison and in the court room. Because of this, she was brutally tortured and died in 1920 at the age of 16. Educated women took over the leading roles in the social movements from aristocrats and upper-class women during this era.

    After being released from prison, other nationalist-educated women secretly set up underground organisations to promote indepen- dence from Japanese rule. They formed con- sciousness raising groups, raised funds for the Korean government in exile in Shanghai, and provided shelter for patriots.


    The 1920s-1930s

    Even though the Independence Declaration Movement on 1 March 1919 failed through brutal suppression, the Japanese rulers had to change their policy on Korea, allowing Korean people limited social activities. Several maga- zines and newspapers started in the 1920s. Through the mass media, nationalists who had studied abroad, mostly in Japan, introduced western ideology, including feminism. The claim that women could achieve equality with men through education based on liberal femi- nism, was highlighted. Nora, of Henry K. Ibsen's play A Doll's House, was praised by New Women (Sin Yeosung; Suh Jung-Ja & Park Young-Hye, 1987, p. 194). They individually protested against patr iarchal oppression, demanding the same sexual freedom for women as for men. But they received little social and personal support.

    The most important ideology to influence Korean feminist movements in the 1920s was Marxist feminism. After the Russian revolution of 1917, Marxism was introduced to Korea. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and


    the State written by Engels was summarised in a magazine (Chondo Gyohoe Wolbo, [Chondo Church Monthly]), 1934, Vols. 79-84). In addi- tion, the ideas of August Bebel and Alexandra Koleontai were also known to Korean people through magazines (Suh Jung- Ja & Park Young-Hye, 1987, p. 195). The introduction of Marxism resulted in splitting the nationalists into two groups: one consisted of reformists who were bourgeois and petty bourgeois west- ern-oriented Christians; the other was made up of communists. Women nationalists were also sharply divided.

    One of the main organisations of reformists was the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). The organisation put emphasis on the reform of Korean society as well as on spreading Christianity. The leaders travelled to teach Christianity as well as to urge women to abolish public prostitution and concubinage, to stop drinking and smoking, to be hygienic, and to save money. The associat ion was well organised and very active in the early 1920s (The Research Centre for Korean Women, 1992, p. 148), but did not have a clear idea of feminism. The YWCA was primarily an organ- isation for Christian education and enlighten- ment (Lee Hyochae, 1989, p. 160).

    In the meantime, communist women organ- ised the Chosun Yeosung Dongwoohoe (the Korean Women's Association) which can be regarded as the first feminist organisation, and which clearly declared in its founding statement that its aim, based on Marxism, was to emanci- pate Korean women from feudal bondage. However, its activities were not prominent.

    Gunwoohoe: 1927-1931

    The split between communists and noncom- munists was criticised. Nationalists agreed to build a joint organisation in order to obtain independence from Japanese imperialism. In 1927, Gunwoohoe, a coalition of women com- munists and reformists (Christians) was born while male nationalists were united in their own organisation, Singanhoe.

    Gunwoohoe is one of the most important women's organisations in Korean women's his- tory in terms of its scale, ideology, and activi- ties. A full range of women across all classes in both the Korean peninsula and Japan and Manchuria, participated in the organisation and by 1930, it had 64 branches. The organisation

    was led by intellectuals and professionals who had studied in modern schools and colleges that had been set up domestically or abroad, mainly in Japan, in the 19th century. There were approximately 10,000 members who were housewives, workers, farmers, students, profes- sionals, and unemployed single women.

    Its national conference in 1929 had two main goals. Firstly, it aimed "'to unite women in solidarity and to raise their consciousness in order to fulfil Korean women's historic respon- sibilities." Secondly, it was "to pursue Korean women's political, economic, social, and over- all interests." The aim of fighting specifically against Japanese rule was not expressed clear- ly, in order to avoid Japanese suppression. However, the terms historic responsibility and whole interests were an indirect expression of its aim to struggle against Japanese rule (The Research Centre for Korean Women, 1992, p. 156). The agenda of Gunwoohoe's national conference in 1928 showed clearly that the organisation's primary goal was to recover independence from Japanese imperialist rule, but it was not discussed at the meeting because of Japanese oppression. It stressed that "Korean women should be a powerful army for Korean nationalist movements and should unite in the Korean nationalist movement" (The Research Centre for Korean Women, 1992, p. 157).

    At the same time, it clearly manifested its important goal of enhancing women's status. The magazine Gunwoo stated in its first issue: "The organisation aims to fight for women's common interests, taking historical responsibil- ity for 10 million women's misfortune." The aim was precisely presented in its seven plat- forms in 1927: (1) the abolition of all social and legal discrimination against women, (2) the el imination of all feudal customs and superstitions, (3) the prohibition of child mar- riage and the advocacy of free marriage, (4) the prohibition of human trafficking and of public prostitution, (5) the championing of female farmers' interests, (6) the abolition of discrimi- nation against female workers in wages and the demand for paid maternity leave before and after birth, and (7) the prohibition of dangerous work and night shifts for women and children. At the 1929 national conference, three more goals were added: (1) the abolition of sexual discrimination in education and the expansion of women's educational opportunities, (2) the freedom of the press, and (3) the establishment

  • Nationalism and Feminism in South Korea 71

    of medical facilities for workers and farmers, and of child care provisions. At the same time, three of the 1927 platforms were amended. The first section was revised to read: "the abolition of all social, legal and political discrimination against women. The freedom of divorce was added to the third section and the sixth section was specified as "paid maternity leave for 4 weeks before birth and 6 weeks after birth" (The Research Centre for Korean Women, 1992, p. 157). Its founding statement, the agen- da, and the p lat forms c lear ly show that Gunwoohoe was a nationalist feminist organi- sation. In particular, they specify that the organisation had clear ideas on women's issues at that time. Releasing women from bondage was seen as an important dement in the strate- gy of modern is ing Korea through social reform. It also paid attention to the conditions of female workers and farmers.

    The activities of Gunwoohoe were also unprecedentedly vigorous. First, the members tried to advertise their organisation in order to expand its membership. They designated the "Day of Gunwoo" once a month and distrib- uted brochures in the streets to inform people of their activities. The organisation also had a 1-week education course to recruit and train its activists. Its own journal Gunwoo was pub- lished. Second, it made efforts to encourage women to overcome their feudal legacy by raising consciousness. Open lectures and debates on women's issues were held to enlighten women nationwide. There were also night classes to educate women. Third, on the one hand, they researched the conditions of the workers; on the other, they made efforts to organise them, supporting the labour move- ment for female workers. Fourth, they support- ed and helped the female students' indepen- dence movements, protesting against Japanese occupation. They also raised funds for building their own house for their act ivit ies (The Research Centre for Korean Women, 1992, pp. 163-166).

    As a registered organisation, Gunwoohoe deployed both legal and illegal, cultural and political, organisational, and popular struggles. Consequently, its meetings were often prohibit- ed and spied upon, and the leaders of the organ- isation were frequently subjected to surveil- lance or imprisonment. In relation to the activi- ties supporting the students' independence movement, many leaders, mostly communists,

    were arrested in an event called the "'Gunwoohoe incident." When their leaders were arrested, conservative reformists criticised their active involvement in anti- Japanese colonialism, insisting on focussing the movement on the enlightenment of women. The conflict between the two factions deepened and, finally, these led to the dissolution of the organisation in 1931. It is, nonetheless, clear that Gunwoohoe was one of the largest and most active nationwide femi- nist organisations in Korean history, initiated and led by educated women.

    After the dissolution of Gunwoohoe, Korean oppression by Japanese rule became more severe. Consequently, most communists became involved in underground movements. Some of them secretly raised funds for the Korean gov- ernment in exile and provided shelter for, and nursed, patriots in the country. Others were exiled and engaged in activities aimed at inde- pendence in the Korean diaspora of Manchuria and Shanghai. In the meantime, most reformist Christians supported 'The Patriotic Enlightenment Movement" in rural areas. This movement could not be sustained because of severe oppression by the colonial government. In the 1940s, at the onset of World War 11, Japanese oppression and exploitation of Koreans became more brutal. After the late 1930s, the indepen- dence struggle, except in the Korean diaspora of foreign territories, diminished to near extinc- tion. The feminist movement and feminism also disappeared.



    Occupation by Russia in the northern part and by the United States in the southern part of the peninsula, was followed by independence from Japan in 1945. The joy of independence soon turned into a devastating civil war between North and South Korea. The United States had been regarded as the emancipator of Korea from Japanese imperialism and was a great help to South Koreans in surviving the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Western culture, intro- duced by American soldiers and the mass media, had been admired and imitated, which led to South Korean people despising and ignoring traditional Korean culture.

    In the late 1970s, dissidents against the mili- tary government began to revive nationalism in


    South Korea in a different way. This national- ism was associated with an appreciation of Korean tradition, rejecting American influ- ences. However, the Kwangju Massacre, in which hundreds of protesters against the mili- tary regime were killed by the Korean army in Kwangju city in 1980, provided important momentum for the revival of nationalism. Protesters against the military government were suspicious of the American role in the massacre because the Korean army was under the command of the UN, which was mainly under American control. They thought that the Korean army had been able to move to the area and kill citizens with the permission of the United States. The incident in which antimili- tary government activists and students set fire to the American Cultural Center in Pusan in 1982, reflected growing anti-American feeling in Korea. In addition, the introduction of dependency theory in the 1980s gave Korean intellectuals the opportunity to think about the relationship of Korea to its major industrial partners (Roxborough, 1979; Park Jong-su, 1980; Paik, 1986). Some dissidents who defined South Korea as a new colony of the advanced countries, particularly, the United States, empha- sised that the struggle against net-colonialism should be given priority. They formed The National Liberation Group, one of the strong factions in the democracy movements in the 1980s. Anti-Americanism during the period of movements for democratisation was directly associated with the revival of nationalism.

    Korean nationalist thought, the Donghak Sasang, and the Donghak Revolution in 1894, were re-evaluated (Kim Jee-Ha, 1984). 4 The Donghak uprising was defmed as "a Revolution" and Jun Bong-Jun, a general of the revolution, was revered as a hero of anti-imperialism. At the same time, parties on the anniversaries of mis- sionary universities changed from western-style balls to Korean traditional festivals. Korean tra- ditional arts and dance were displayed at the ral- lies and meetings against military rule. Classes for traditional arts attracted many students at universities. The movement gained support from university students and intellectuals.

    Net-nat ional ism can be contrasted with nationalism during the era of Enlightenment and Japanese rule. The former criticised the imprudent adoption of western culture, making efforts to revive and revalue Korean cultural traditions, where the latter had attempted to

    overcome the restrictive aspects of those tradi- tions, especially in relation to women.

    The re-emergence of the feminist movement coincided with the democracy movement in the 1980s. The conservative women's movements had made progress in promoting women's legal fights. However, along with the promulgation of The International Women's Year (1975) and the Decade for Women (1976-1985) by the UN, and the introduction of Women's Studies, Korean women activists developed their own clear awareness of exploitation and oppression by patriarchal capitalists, of male domination, and of patriarchal cultural norms as well as oppression by the military regime. They estab- lished new feminist organisations, for example, The Women's Association for Equality and Peace, The Women's Hot Line, An Alternative Culture, and The Women's Association for Democracy and Sisterhood.

    But some antigovernment, male nationalists considered feminism as a phenomenon of western Europe and North America, and femi- nist struggles in South Korea as a mere imita- tion of western models. 5 Others dismissed women's issues as a "secondary contradiction," regarding the women's movement as sectarian which weakened the all-consuming struggle for democratisation.

    Korean feminists had to fight to show that feminism was present in the Donghak Sasang (The Eastern School of Thought), the most important body of Korean indigenous national- ist thought (Kim Kyung-Ai, 1983). At the same time, Korean feminists who established their own organisations, vigorously raised women's issues and protested against mil itary rule, ignoring attempts made by some male antimili- tary government activists to discredit them dur- ing the 1980s. The feminist movement was obtaining legitimacy among antigovernment activists through active participation in the democracy movements, in particular, and through its strenuous protest against the mili- tary government relating to the Kwon In-Sook Incident in 1986 which is described below. In the late 1980s, the military government adopt- ed a strategy of sexual harassment to repress the growing number of female student activists. Kwon In-Sook, a student, was raped by a pol iceman during an investigation of her antigovernment activities. The incident illus- trated the absolute integration of issues of gen- der and democratisation. The Korean feminist

  • Nationalism and Feminism in South Korea 73

    movement took up the issue and vigorously fought the government. Eventually, the student was released from jail and the policeman was imprisoned. Active participation and contribu- tion to the democracy movement has seeming- ly provided a firm basis for feminists' demands for equality since democratisation, dismissing nat ional is ts ' scept ic ism about femin ism in South Korea in the 1990s.


    Nationalism has been closely linked in Korea to issues concern ing women's t radi t ional behavioural norms, the status of women, and emergence of the feminist movement. Nationalists urged the abolition of the Confucian legacy of sexual discrimination against women in order to reform society. Education was seen as an important tool for this. Through participation both in the movement for women's education and in school education, women had to come out of seclusion and overcome the behavioural norm of thei r conf inement to the home. Women were encouraged to be educated in schools for the f i rst t ime in the Chosun Dynasty. Educated women played key roles in, both, the nationalist and feminist movements during the colonial period. Women's participa- tion in the independence movement provided them with experience in political activities. The struggle for women's emancipation had been an essent ia l and integral part of the national resistance movement against imperial- ism in Korea as well as in other countr ies (Jayawardena, 1986, p. 8). National ism and feminism supported each other during the era of Enlightenment and Japanese colonial rule.

    However, in the 1980s, nationalism func- tioned in a totally different way. It criticised "western isa t ion , " advocat ing support for Korean tradit ional culture. Femin ism was regarded as a product of western culture and, hence, was suspect by some nationalists. They advocated the rev iva l of Korean culture. However, through their great contribution to democratisat ion and vigorous chal lenge on women's issues, Korean feminists seem to have overcome the scepticism and suspicion of these nationalists. These examples show that nationalism can act both as an advocate of and also as a barrier to feminism, particularly with regard to the relationship of tradition to both nationalism and feminism.


    1. At the time, it was critically recognised that imperial- ism of those countries threatened Korean sovereignty. Koreans developed their own thought to inspire their people to maintain their identity. The Donghak Sasang (The Eastern School of Thought), one of the important nationalist texts, inspired Korean people to resist Christianity and to fight against the aggression of other powerful countries. Christianity was referred to as suh- hak (The Western School of Thought).

    2. The Chosun Dynasty responded to foreign aggression with complacency and weakness. Their inability to pro- tect Korean sovereignty resulted in the development of the Donghak popular nationalist revolution. The Donghak revolution in 1894 was, externally, against Japanese and western aggression and, internally, against Confucian social norms.

    3. Nationalists, themselves, found it very difficult to con- tinue running schools because of financial problems. After the colonisation of the Korean peninsula by Japan in 1910, schools funded by the government, wives of pro-Japanese Korean government officials, and Japanese officials, as well as schools managed by missionaries continued to run.

    4. Kim Jee-Ha, a famous antimilitary government poet in Korea, re-evaluated the Donghak Sasang and the Donghak Revolution in his book, Bap (Cooked Rice), which was a bestseller.

    5. Jayawardena (1986) has also argued the same point for other Third World countries (p. 2).


    Chondo Gyohoe Wolbo (Chondo Church Monthly). (1934). Vols. 79-84.

    Han Myong-Sook. (1985). A theoretical study on Confucian views of woman in the Yi Dynasty. Unpublished mas- ter's thesis, Ewha Women's University, Seoul, Korea.

    Jayawardena, Kumari. (1986). Nationalism and feminism in the Third WorM. London: Zed.

    Kim Jee-Ha. (1984). Bap [Cooked rice]. Seoul: Bundo Chulpansa.

    Kim Kyung-Ai. (1983). A study of the thought of sex equality of Donghak, Chondokyo. Unpublished mas- ter's thesis, Ewha Womans University, Seoul.

    Kim Young-Chung. (1976). Women of Korea: A history from ancient times to 1945. Seoul: Ewha Woman's University Press.

    Lee Hyochae. (1989). Hankookei Yeosung Undong - - Eijewa Onul [The women's movements in Korea- Past and present]. Seoul: Jungwoosa.

    Lee Ock-Kyung. (1985). A study on the formational condi- tions and settlement mechanisms of the Jeong Juel ide- ology of the Yi Dynasty through reorganization of the ideology critique. Unpublished master's thesis, Ewha Woman's University, Seoul.

    Paik Kwang-II. (1986). Baljonkwe Jaobaljaneu yiron [Theories of development and underdevelopment]. Seoul: Makmoonkwa Sasang.

    Park Jong-su. (1980). Jongsok yiron Iran mueuh inga [What is dependency]. Seoul: Chunga Chulpansa.

    Park Young-Ock. (1984). Hankook Gundae Yeosung Undongsa [The modern history of Korean women's movements]. Seoul: Chungsin Munwha Yeonkuwon.


    Park Young-Ock. (1981). Sex equality in the Donghak. Yeoksa Hakbo [Journal of History], 91, 109-143.

    Park Young-OciL (1975). l-lankook Gundac Yeosungsa [A modern history of Korean Women]. Hankoo llbo.

    The Research Centre for Korean Women (Ed.). (1992). A history of Korean women. Seoul: Pulbit.

    Roxborough, Ian. (1979). Theories of underdevelopment. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan Press.

    Short Kyu-Bok. (1972). Gunsae Hart Bul Yeojakyoyooksasangei Bikyokochal (2) [A comparative study of the educational ide- ology of Korea and France in the modem era (2)]. Yeosw~g Munjae Yeonlca [Research on Women's Issues], 2, 93-111.

    Suh Jung-Ja & Young-Hye Park. (1987). Women's literatures in the modern era. In Asia Yeosung Munje Yeonkuso [Research Centre for Asian Women's Issues] (Ed.), Hankoo Gundae Feosang Yeonku [A study on Korean Women in the modern era] (pp. 185-237). Seoul: Sookmyung Women's University.

    Yoon, Hye-Won. (1987). Women's education in the opening era. In Asia Yeosung Munje Yeonkuso [Research Centre for Asia Women's Issues] (Ed.). Hankoo Gundae Feosung Yeonku [A study on Korean women in the mod- ern era] (pp. 113-184). Seoul: Sookmyung Women's University.