Sociology Professor Yoonkyung Lee was recently featured in an interview by U of T's Faculty of Arts & Science News. The interview explores Professor Lee's research on the labour conditions and political processes in Korea, as well as her role as the Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies. Professor Lee is an Associate Professor of Sociology with teaching responsibilities at the St. George campus. She is a political sociologist with research interests in labour politics, social movements, and political representation.
We have posted an excerpt of the article below.
The politics of precarious labour and democracy in Korea
November 3, 2017 | Diana Kuprel
You trace the historical formation of political opposition in Korea. What is unique about Korean society and political life?
Our understanding of democratic politics is hugely pre-defined by the political experience of Western societies. We work with presumed notions, such as modern political systems emerging with industrialization, political pluralism exercised by political parties, and civil society buttressing micro-level democratic processes. By doing so, we often make the mistake of assuming that if something is “different” from the “Western standard,” democracy is an aberration and deficient.
Over the years of my comparative study of political development in non-Western societies like Korea and Taiwan, I have come to learn that they need to be approached on their own terms. Politics in these societies cannot be understood without the historical legacies of colonialism, war and national division, which have set a different terrain for the creation of democratic politics. My task as a scholar is to identify the different trajectories and to explain what this “difference” adds to our knowledge of politics, democracy and social change.
In this sense, Korea presents an intriguing case, with a strong state, a contentious social movement, and relatively weak political parties. These three actors have formed a unique political dynamic under which political stability and predictability are hard to come by. The political force that seizes state power strives to use the overarching authority. Vocal social movements mobilize to contest the excessive state. And political parties are unable to harness the conflicting interests into the formal political process. It is this very dynamic that creates sporadic historical moments when people mobilize, become politically enlightened, directly participate, and make a drastic change in the course of politics. The phenomenal protest that occurred in Korea over several months in 2016 and 2017 led to the formal impeachment of the incumbent president Park Geun-hye—there is no better example that shows the unique political dynamic of Korea.