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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Who you calling progressive?

Shout out to Antti for an excellent bitesized post on two rather overused Korean words - chinbo (progress) and sômin (ordinary people). These slippery words have a tricky life of their own in an ever-changing political and ideological context.

On the word sômin, I've always had the impression that it has something of a petit bourgeois ring about it. In other words, it refers to not only workers but also small businessmen and women (the sort of people who are sometimes referred to as 'ordinary hardworking people' in the UK). This seems to be somewhat in contrast to the word minjung (people, masses) which has more of a meaning of the dispossessed, or the classes in opposition to the ruling class, while carefully avoiding such a specific meaning as working class or proletariat. My impressions about the nuances of Korean words are often wrong, so Antti might correct me about this.

I'm also interested by the article that Antti quotes from referring to the criteria for being considered a 'progressive'. It is definitely the case that sections of the Korean left believe that one's attitude to North Korea determines whether one is progressive (진보적) or not. So one can only be progressive if one has an 'open minded' view of the north (ie is to some degree supportive) and supports unification (presumably with the North Korean regime to some extent intact).

Of course this is clearly nonsense, in fact in my view it is only possible to be progressive if you are opposed to the North Korean regime, that is, if you are on the side of workers and 'ordinary people' rather than the side of North Korea or South Korea or the US. Of course peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula would certainly be some form of progress and infinitely preferrable to whatever the warped brain of Rumsfeld might think up as a solution for the Korean people. But I don't think that such a unification will be achieved by throwing in one's lot with one of the least progressive regimes on the face of the earth.

On a side note, there are, it seems, people on the Korean left who don't support the idea of unification at all. A correspondent in the latest issue of Ta Hamkke argues that unification of the Korean peninsula would parallel the creation of nation states in western Europe in the late nineteenth century and could only benefit the capitalists. How can leftists (and internationalist leftists at that) call for the completion of a capitalist nation state? A very interesting point that may be problematic but certainly provides some food for thought.


At February 21, 2005 7:09 AM, Blogger Antti Leppänen said...

I kindly refer you to the presentation I did in AKSE 2003 by the title "Sômin as a Social Category in South Korea" (Word document). Of course I couldn't fit all the stuff in it, but it has most of my observations and thoughts around the topic.

In one sense "sômin" definitely refers to the petite bourgeoisie so that the small businesskeepers are "the essence" of the concept, people to which it most freely is applied to. In political parlance, OOP and GNP lump everything "below" the middle class as sômin, and DLP makes the distinction between the workers (nodongja) and sômin, which in that case is easy to see as the self-employed. (In their party programs they may talk of minjung, but that just doesn't connect when one needs votes.)

At February 22, 2005 10:12 AM, Blogger kotaji said...

Cheers Antti. I've actually been meaning to read your paper from the previous AKSE conference (2001), which is sitting on a shelf within reaching distance in the office where I work.

It strikes me that the use of hanja in Korean provides a richer range of possibilities when it comes to expressing these nuanced class-related concepts. In English we end up with these slightly awkward sounding combinations like 'ordinary people', while terms like 'the masses' or 'commoners' sound laughably old-fashioned or quaint. I wonder if the situation is the same in Finnish.

Of course we don't actually need these words any more in Britain because everyone is middle class now...


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