Protest Suicide in Korea

In a new article for JCA, Sun-Chul Kim of the Department of Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, examines the development of protest suicide in South Korea.

In “The Trajectory of Protest Suicide in South Korea, 1970–2015” (DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2019.1607889), Kim examines the role that suicide has played in advancing political aims and proposals. The abstract states:

Widely recognised as an indispensable element in South Korea’s political democratisation, protest suicide has conjured up an image of insurmountable spirit and steely resolve by heroic fighters challenging the powerful authoritarian state. Based on a systematic examination of 125 cases of protest suicide from 1970 to 2015, this article exposes the deficiencies in previous accounts and contends that protest suicide is not a uniform practice but an evolving political form that reflects changes in the broader political environment. Calling into question the conventional account that attributes protest suicide to severe state oppression, the article shows how protest suicide became most prominent in the late 1980s in the context of expanding political space, not in the earlier periods when the political climate was most adverse. The article also traces the gradual change of protest suicide from an aggressive political weapon meant to spur mass protest towards a more defensive act by workers who use death to communicate frustration, weariness and despair as they protest injustice. These findings suggest the need to embrace a more nuanced understanding of protest suicide and reflect on the nature of political democracy in the age of neo-liberalism.

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