Thursday, May 16, 2013

Democracy Evolutions -- The May 16th, 1961 Park Jung-hee coup [re-post]

I originally posted this in 2011:

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Park Jung-hee coup d'etat. Although the story received a long editorial in the English-language paper I usually buy (The Korea Herald), it's received little attention in the English-language expat blogs, at least that I've been able to find so far. In Korean, the top news site by net ranking is this Ohmynews piece. 

At the school where I work, there was no mention of the coup. Yesterday was Teachers' Day, and today is "Adult Day" (this is an awkward translation -- it really means Age of Majority Day, though it refers to anyone who reached 21 within the past twelve months. Lots of flowers are being sold.) In fact, I would have missed the anniversary altogether if I hadn't bought a paper this evening. In two days will be another anniversary that is a milestone in the development of  South Korean democracy: the May 18th Gwangju Uprising. This warranted a screening at my school of 화려한 휴가 [The Splendid Holiday], a very affecting 2007 film directed by Kim Ji-hoon. But I'm not sure there will be much in the way of references to it on campus beyond this.

The May 16, 1961 coup was a regression; an usurpation of a student-led, non-violent revolution that took place some months before, and overthrew the dictatorial Syngman Rhee. But the 5.16 coup still has its apologists, who in turn call it a revolution in an attempt to win the lexical-political game of transforming reaction into something labelled progress. Some of these tensions are covered in the following article, from Korean, at the Daum website.


  1. It's not fair to judge the past by the standards of the present. A May-16th-style coup in the 2010s would be terrible, true, but 1961 was a different world, especially in Korea. It is not clear at all that it was a "regression".

    I think a strong case can be made for the coup's justification. It cleaned up corruption. And it's likely that an attempt at liberal-democracy in 1960s Korea would have floundered and failed.

  2. "[The coup has] received little attention in the English-language expat blogs"

    I wrote about it here at my humble blog:

    May 16th, 1961: "The Finest Things to Happen to Korean in 1,000 Years"

    And my attempt at an analysis:

    Koreans' Feelings Today About May 16th, 1961