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Stairs of Metaphor: The Vernacular Substitution – Supplements of South Korean Communism

Ho Duk Hwang19 October 2016

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This essay by Ho Duk Hwang, professor in the department of Korean Language and Literature at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, is excerpted from The Idea of Communism 3: the Seoul Conference, edited by Alex Taek-Gwang Lee and Slavoj Žižek.


May 18th Memorial Monument, via Wikimedia Commons

Is this your face?
Mr Pak, could this really be your face?
Like a dead visage in an alcohol bottle,
Your gaunt cheeks like a swollen sponge
Your dry, wispy hair exposing your skull,
Oh! Could this truly be you?

The Pak I knew before, strong as an ox
Sitting across from me, wielding his pen in C Co.,
Under harsh beating his guts all skewered,
Now food for the crows.

On a dark, dank night in Shanghai,
Windy and rain-soaked,
Together in some underground cellar, fists clenched,
Your eyes wide open when they broke you,
You have emerged from the prison gate a walking corpse.

Pak, Oh Pak, XX!
Your loving wife has embraced your ruins,
Your surviving comrades grasp you by the hand,
Gritting your teeth, as if cursing heaven
The tears flow from your eyes.
Oh, Mr Pak! I can read your face.

Yes, Mr Pak
Repay an eye for an eye,
Repay a tooth for a tooth
Until I forget all the X together,
Until both of our hearts stop beating.
 Sim Hun, ‘Mr Pak’s Face’ (Chosŏn Ilbo, 2                                                          December 1927) 

Communism: Infinite Generic Concepts or the Unspeakable Name

The people’s sentiment towards communism in South Korea is one of fear – namely, fear of the fear that is embodied in politics. The reactionary, overwhelming forces that attack every symbol of community external to the existing state system still control the law and the state. With the Korean War under suspension and still without a peace treaty, a post-colonial, divided Korea exists in a perpetual state of emergency. The name ‘commie’ (ppalgaengi) immediately brings to mind the ‘other’ war in which 5 million people, or one quarter of the entire population of the Korean Peninsula, were either killed or injured by periodical ideological purges and other means of the South Korean anti-communist system. In this system no one could utter the phrase ‘I am a communist’ without the fear of being arrested. The original law regulating all thoughts and actions – especially the express display of communist affiliation – that posed a threat to the body politic and national security was the colonial-era Maintenance of Public Order Act. This was followed by the Cold War-era Anti-Communist Law, which was in turn succeeded by the National Security Law that still exists today.

The most severe sentence for violating any of these laws has always been death. If the subject is the position of potentiality to which signifiers may connect, then the advent of the signifiers ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ in this position marks the moment when the subject’s ‘mortality’ is attested. Although journalistic freedom and freedom of conscience are protected by the constitution, a gathering of more than two like-minded people is deemed a ‘conspiracy’. Any long-term meetings that foster imaginings of a new community (commune) are enough to invoke the National Security Law over and against the principles governing the common law. When we say that speech signifies empathy/conspiracy between two or more individuals, and possesses performativity through articulation, no one can claim that declaring oneself a communist is equivalent to Communist Party membership without violation of this law. Those who are found to be merely aware of assemblies associated with communism are considered to be complicit, and can be punished under the National Security Law. No one remains safe from the National Security Law.

An explanation of the National Security Law by the current South Korean minister of justice – an expert on defence against North Korea’s Communist Party – sums up what is implied by communism in today’s Korea: ‘National Security Law is defined as the entire legal system that ensures national security and guarantees the life and freedom of the people.’ 1 In fact, then, anti-communism forms the very foundation of the law. South Korea’s legal system, which is based on national division and anti-communism, represents without exception the exceptio legal convention, a political concept that determines an enemy whose function is both to create and to perpetuate the rationale of national security.

Of course, this does not mean that the state of South Korean politics is devoid of the idea of communism. The sense of community in the Korean term uri (‘we’) retains a communistic philosophy that has remained with us. If, as Alain Badiou says, ‘the communist Idea is the imaginary operation whereby an individual subjectivization projects a fragment of the political real into the symbolic narrative of History’, this operation is one that cannot be suspended. However, when we examine the period from Korea’s colonial past, through the subsequent years of developmental dictatorship, to contemporary South Korea, the fact that the state is based on the implied exclusion or prohibition of the symbol of communism is clear. If the Idea is an immutable constant that exists outside of history and the Concept is a linguistic unit that projects the universal treatment of objects and events onto the symbolic narrative of history, the history of the concept of Korean communism in Korea is one that cannot be written, or must be written differently.

When we attempt to construct a history of the concept of communism in South Korea by connecting ideologies with events, we encounter four difficulties. First is the problem of concept-substitution, or supplementation. In South Korea, communism has been replaced by a ‘different’ signifier and a ‘different’ symbol. In a divided nation where the national policy is centred on anti-communism, and North Korean sympathizers are threatened politically and bodily, the concepts employed by critical political forces can only be severely restricted. Freedom, democracy, liberal democracy, nationalism, populism, citizenship, demos and community are terms that have been ineluctably caught within a conflict of interpretations or within a conflict of moral criticism. Thus, it has been difficult to break these terms free from the political romanticism over authenticity and purity of will. (Even in the campaigns directed at subverting state control, these terms have necessarily possessed an interpretational disparity of denotation within the same concept.)

The struggle of the South Korean ‘communist’ is, then, without an adequate signifier, without a proper name. Where the autoregressive/ lucid does not possess a symbol – namely, an act without concept – the act becomes stranded in the interstices between the real and the imaginary. Those who are susceptible to dangerous substitution, supplementation and proxy signifiers are given to arrive at a different point. Through a prohibition of the symbolic and the signifie, the movement struggles within ‘the real’ deprived of any mediation. In this divided nation, not even adjectives are safe. When the law is applied in such a way as to ‘lay bare to the public the plot of these impure factions to command plausible-sounding adjectives like “progressive”, “novel” and “innovative”, in order to deceive the people, all the while shaking hands with the enemy and eventually selling out our country to the [North Korean] puppets’, even within the limit of descriptive words alone, this is a disquieting division. Democracy, the volk (minjok), the demos, the worker, the populace – all are considered dangerous. Through a ‘creative’ and enforceable interpretation of symbols, those who monopolize both the laws of the state and the laws of grammar, the ‘masters’ of South Korean communist ideology, are ironically the heads of the Bureau of National Information.2 Regardless of its claim to support democratization and social reform, the state can interpret these tendencies as a ‘subterfuge for social revolution’, and judge them to be anti-state organizations, which is in fact what has happened.

Second, there is the problem of negation, or rather the negation of negation. South Korea was one of the few countries to retain the ‘Anti-Communist Law’ until 1980. Since then, the law has not disappeared, but lives on as a dimension of the current National Security Law. Disavowal of the national policy of anti-communism was considered dangerous in the past, and it still remains so today.3 Discourse or campaigns critical of the regime of anti-communism necessarily meant the disavowal of anti-communism in its systemic manifestation. Such absolute negation of communism creates a dialectical problem of its creating only its own negation – the double negative of communism: anti-anti-communism – that is different from communism in the positive.4 In one of the few lawful channels for knowledge about communism – material critical of communism – there are two courses through which the representative space of anti-communist negation can be penetrated. First, the symbols (i.e. X, asterisk, circle) used in place of redacted text, namely, the effaced negativity which is visualized as the traces ‘XXXX’. For instance, consider the effect of the following erasure: ‘The capitalist class monopolizes private property, manages the workers, uses surplus value in production, and XX politically, ruling by XXXX’. The symbol ‘X’ is of minimal symbolic value, but maximal imaginative value. The second course was the negation of prohibition, or the movement for double negativity in which the emergence of the position ‘anti-anti-communism’ was the inevitable result. Social movements under a system of anti-communism had to begin from a position removed from criticism of an anti-communism that was superior to and transcended the legal system itself. Prefixes such as ‘anti-’, ‘de-’ and ‘over-’ , as well as the term ‘pro-North’ (denoting a North Korea sympathizer), mentioned above, are themselves heads grafted onto a regime, and within this limitation they are headings without contents. Anti-communism – the stronghold of South Korean conservatism – is the dwelling place of substanceless individuals, where distraction is carried out only by the creation of enemies and disavowal of the Other. Without renewed uncertainty of the regime’s prefixes (anti-, de-, over-), the regime of anti-communism is something that cannot be transcended. Indeed, anti-anti-communism is the history of South Korean social movements itself. Of course, the effect of blank space caused by hyphens and censorship symbols is clear. While the censored remains on the frontier of the symbolic realm, it incites through imagination that exceeds the symbolic. The hyphen, through the negative ‘movement’ itself, approaches the real. However, we cannot say that the opposite of the opposite of communism is communism in the affirmative. Under communism’s prohibition, anti-anti-communism shares the same ideological poverty as anti-communism. Moreover, the double negative as a positive – those who oppose anti-communism are communists – is the logic of the Republic of Korea’s regime. Because, according to The Communist Manifesto, ‘Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things’, the double negative has become inculpatory evidence of conspiracy with enemies outside the purview of the law. In South Korea, communism is not an ideology but an anti-state organization, an epithet for North Korea. The pattern of manipulation, torture, propaganda, repulsion of the North, alignment with the North, or directives from the North – often via Japan, the United States or Europe – is often judged definitively in terms such as: ‘A certain event XXX claiming the charge fabricated, in league with the propagandistic activities of the North puppet regime, benefited the anti-state organization.’

Even while taking the critique of the double negative as a starting point, only when the interpretation of those exceptional ‘masters’ was disavowed has the idea of communism been able to be rescued. It follows that this rescuing excludes communism and any of its attendant conceptualizations and conceptual histories. At the moment when these critiques and progressive movements fall prey to the legal clutches of the concept, the object X is on the one hand sacred, and its existence is free of guilt despite its being killed in this state of exception. At the same time that the concept of communism is enforced, capital punishment – the law enforcement of the anti-communist state – is presented. The connection to communist culpability was even connected to destiny through its succession in the system of punishing the families of the guilty. South Korean communism (at times forged through torture) is visualized through the interrogation reports that constitute ‘spy’ accounts, sentencing and eventual statements, and biographical rehabilitation of the communists involved is impossible without blood-drenched ‘confessions’ and ‘affidavits’. This is the reason that fictional ‘family histories’, or epic natural history allegories such as the roman-fleuve, came to replace the ideological and conceptual histories of South Korean communism.

Third is the regional and spatial limitation of historical development stage theory. Historically, spatial modifiers were always attached to ‘our’ concepts – the concept of ‘our’ by definition sharing an inevitable connection with communist ideology.5 For example, there is the difficulty that arises with the determinacy or indeterminacy possessed by regional limitations such as the Asiatic Mode of Production. However, adjectives such as Asiatic, East Asian, national, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and international are all primarily modifiers that spatialize the temporal. Through the superimposition of time-space continuum as revolutionary stages, the regional or local limitations of the international communist movement (such as the Comintern’s issues on Asiatic, national and colonial questions) and the actual sources of this limitation, historical development stage theory, have limited the movements based on the principles of real underdevelopment and restriction. The time for revolution was always too soon (until the Chinese communist revolution, at least). Korean liberation discourse that included the communist movement (despite its being based on the inevitable premises of ‘movement/action’) could not break free from the discursive matrix overwhelmed with discussions of Korean and Asian historical stages, the determining of the subject of history, and social formation. Moreover, the struggle over the redirection of historical consciousness and for securing the subject of popularization and revolution, locutions like communism or socialism were continually economized. Concept finally withdrew, and was subliminalized into ideology. In an active sense, the communist movement established the combination of regional limitations and the limits of historical stage theory itself as the strategies and tactics for grasping the reins of state power. Within the ideological dimension, communism was always hidden or extremely minimized.

Fourth is the problem of the public and the private – the antimony between theoretical openness and the underground movement; or, the ethics of South Korean communism. The history of South Korean communism is a blood-soaked body, the ground littered with letters, diaries and documents. Rather than in the language of media and the streets, Korean communism existed only within legal pronouncements and as a transgraphical practice. Rhetorical communism existed only as censorship symbols or proxy signifiers. Even short memos were deemed to be ‘preliminary activities in the aiding of the enemy’ and triggered punishment. Actions and speech by communists existed ‘underground’. The moment they surfaced into the public eye, these ‘excavated’ creeds were captured by the legal system. The brutalized bodies of private individuals evoked the existence of the idea of that which is common: the eye of the incarcerated, the disordered face, the broken frame, the blood-spattered prison uniform; aphasia, incoherent babbling, mental derangement. The state/ legal exhibition in the form of violence often utilized the making of córpus delícti (‘bodies of crime’), their illocutionary presentation, and this conspicuous publicity itself became both the dynamic force of the anti-communist system and communism’s historical representation – the source of the double negative imaginative force. The real of South Korean communism is underground, in the mind, but also inscribed into bloody flesh. Korean communism, in which ‘public’ is founded not on the commune but always in the most private forms – confessions and testimony, the ground littered with sincerity, the corporeal – exists as an exceptional rupture of these forms, and remains now in the ashes of archives, the ethics of the witness, and the iconographies of those who suffered.

The conceptual history of South Korean communism cannot be captured in an historical progression by keywords. We must examine not only the ‘concept’ (con-cept: inclusion as one) but also the ‘exception’ (ex-cept-ion: inclusive exclusion). Such conceptual history is a conceptualization of concepts – namely, the unity in multiplicity that is contained by the generic. To quote Quentin Skinner, in order to evaluate the conceptual history of communism, ‘We need . . . to be ready to take as our province nothing less than the whole of what Cornelius Castoriadis has described as the social imaginary, the complete range of the inherited symbols and representations that constitute the subjectivity of an age.’ Histories that do not belong to a given ‘thing’ can indeed be histories of that ‘thing’ after all. When communism itself is defined not as a state or an idea, but as ‘the movement which abolishes the present state of things’, this ‘Korean’ difficulty is an exceptional one, and can even be understood as the governing rule of communism’s infinite difficulties.

The four difficulties that limit communism, or rather form it into infinite generic concepts – the concept substitution-supplements of communism; negative negation (the double negative); the regional and spatial limitations of historical stage theory; and the antimony between the public and the private (confession, conscious, corpus) – shall here be called simply substitution-supplementation. The history of Korean communism is not the history of communist movements, concepts or lexicons, but the history of ‘the real’, which surpassed but never reached communism.

Liberation, the Propagation of Democracy, and Limitations: Multitude and Individuum

In practical terms, communists do not necessarily exist where the name communism is invoked. If they are present wherever there is criticism of ownership and political grounds and action for the common, then as a movement and as an idea, they exist everywhere. Rather, the question we must ask is the following: Up to what point is an action with no name or under a different name possible?

It is important to note that, even when the prohibition was lifted, numerous concept substitutions were produced at the point of suture between historical time and spatial restrictions and the requisite subjectivization. For example, during the only time when communism was able to become ‘public illocution’, the two or three years after the liberation of 15 August 1945, the communist ideology and movement had already been formed. The unfolding of Korean communism at the point of liberation was determined and substituted under the conditions of the following three limitations: the temporal limitation of historical stage, the spatial limitation of post-colonial Korea positioned in Asia, and the communal-national (inmin-minjok) limitation of the Korean people. From these limitations arose the conceptual removal of communism and the proletarian revolution itself, the refusal to distinguish between nationalism and communism, and the political exclusion of traitors to the nation and pro-Japanese affiliates.

With these limitations and exclusions, the concept of communism was replaced by democracy. Strategic and tactical concepts began to appear panoramically: the critical approval of ‘bourgeois democracy’ that sprung from the French and American revolutions, the referencing of Soviet and Chinese ‘New Democracy’ or ‘General Democracy’, and the absorption of ‘coalitional’ or ‘ethnic democracy’ signalled by the possibility of left–right political conciliation. Moreover, these types of bounded concepts gradually converged upon the interest of the protection of ‘progressive democracy’ through the removal of liberal democracy and, at the present stage, the monopoly of the proletariat. The ‘greatest limitation’ on Korea’s so-called ‘ethno-nationalist rebirth’6 was the concept of ‘progressive democracy’. The Korean communist movement leader and internationalist of the post-liberation era, Pak Hŏn-yŏng, acclaimed this concept as groundbreaking, asserting that ‘the Communist Party of Korea is at the forefront of fulfilling progressive democracy’. He stated in 1945:

The core of the Chosŏn [Korea] problem lies with the achievement of complete independence and the establishment of a democratic state. Here, the most important issue is the question of who is the enemy. Our enemy remains the forces of Japanese imperialism, and its close connections through the pro-Japanese factions . . . Today, widespread misunderstandings about ‘proletarian revolution’ and ‘the construction of a socialist system’ stem from the ignorance of those who have heard nothing and know nothing of the Communist Party of Korea’s opinions and policy lines. Whether our party emerges in an era of unlawfulness or in a lawful manner, it supports the bourgeois democratic class and the construction of democracy. 7

Amid the turbulence of colonial experience and the spatial restriction of ideology, relationships between land-owner/capitalists and the pro-Japanese, democracy and popular sovereignty, ethnicity and the people, equality and distribution, and exclusion and unification had to be ‘strategically’ and ‘tactically’ confused. In particular, the National United Front of Korea, which was deemed to be developing a ‘domestic revolutionary force’, was divided over the policy of ‘excluding pro-Japanese traitors to the nation and unifying progressive democratic elements’.8 ‘The working people’ were substituted for the revolutionary proletariat class, and they were considered the ‘pure people’s front’, the ‘multitude’ with abundant potential power. ‘Bourgeois land owners’ were called ‘pro-Japanese traitors to the nation’. The dissolution of ownership relations was accomplished through the proxy social agendas of ‘land reform’ and ‘nationalization’.

The issue of ownership – the central thesis of The Communist Manifesto – has been described by Karl Marx in the following way: ‘In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.’ Thus it is described as the core principle of democracy over the exclusion of pro-Japanese traitors and ultra-nationalists. Pak Hŏn-yŏng likewise summarizes the fundamental nature of ownership in the communist movement: ‘If land reform were to be carried out across the country, this would establish the foundation of democratic development in Korea.’

The South Korea in which the United States was stationed became a sphere of much propaganda and contention regarding ‘democracy’. Everyone was in principle a supporter of democracy. In a country where, ‘not only did every last person consider themselves democrats but . . . quite a few non-democrats insisted that they be acknowledged as democrats’9, how could communist ideology be effectively substituted through democracy? The difficulty with the articulation of the term ‘democracy’ is evidenced by the multitude of derivative terms appearing in one liberation-era dictionary: ‘progressive democracy’, ‘American-style democracy’, ‘Soviet democracy’, ‘liberal democracy’, ‘New Democracy’, ‘working people democracy’, and many others. If it was claimed that ‘the so-called democracy advocated by both the communists and the opposing anti-communist camp is nothing more than camouflage meant to conceal the fascist nature of political ideologies of colluding monopolistic capital’10, why did the signifier ‘democracy’ continue to demand advocacy from the leaders?

The man who ideologically formalized the ‘progressive’ character of democracy was the partisan philosopher Pak Ch’i-u. As a hidden ideologue of the Communist Party of Korea, he conceived of a redistribution that permitted ‘true one-to-one, actual one-to-one, realistic equality’ as an inherently democratic campaign. If we say that totalitarianism relies on the indivisible principles of organic theory of the state or nation, then democracy was based on infinite divisions until it reached to the individual level, in accordance with formal logic. As the atom and the individuum are established by the Law of Identity (Subject who claims, ‘I am me’) and the Law of Contradiction (Other who claims, ‘I am not you’), the one-to-one principle and the association among these indivisible singularities form the principle of majority vote by representatives that drives democracy:

With the hope of moving inevitably towards a society in which each individual works according to his ability without condition or exception, and distribution is based on work, only now has equality begun to become a reality in Korea. Therefore when Korea achieves the majority demand for one-to-one equality this will be a great, inevitable leap forward towards democracy . . . This is why not only should we not sink to the level of bourgeois democracy, but progress towards a democracy of the workers that can firmly ensure the demand of the workers for actual one-to-one equality, which is in fact a natural course.11

Actual progressive democracy meant a transition from bourgeois democracy by means of the workers (and therefore socialism or its preceding stage). However, this sort of transition has historically faced continued setbacks. As is well known, democracy is not a procedure of truth, but a procedure through authority and arbitration, in which various authorities contend for ownership over the term ‘democracy’. However, there were too many different forms of democracy, and ‘ethnic-national’ limitations that continually adhered to these forms.

But who were the common people? Mostly, they were a set complementary to the pro-Japanese, traitors to the nation. The concept of democracy, itself a stand-in for communism, was again employed this time as a proxy for pro-Japanese/anti-nationalist antagonism. The method of this removal was in reality lucid, but ideologically and conceptually opaque. The construction of socialism or the demand for the actualization of communist ideology slipped into a strategy of organizational self-purification as ‘the construction of an independent nation-state’, or perhaps a ‘subjective’ state formation. Because of the demand to be ‘progressive’ that was imposed by historical stage theory, active efforts to differentiate the self resulted in the spatial exclusion of the precedence of liberal democracy-as-propertied class and the temporal removal of Soviet-style proletarian dictatorship democracy and classless communistic democracy. In that process, the dual status of the ‘nation’ (minjok) as both subject and object of conquest was continually evoked.

Here, Mao Zedong’s strategy of excluding traitors to the country as part of the New Democracy Movement was seen as the model for progressive democracy and its exclusion of pro-Japanese elements. For example, Sin Nam-ch’ŏl understood the subject of democratic construction to be the ‘political/economic human, the national human’.

The democracy we now speak of is ‘New Democracy’. It is a democracy endowed with a new meaning. It is progressive democracy. As Mao Zedong stated in his speech before the Yenan Association for the Promotion of Constitutional Government on 20 February 1940, ‘New Democratic government, the constitutional government of New Democracy. This is not the outmoded democracy of the past, the bourgeois dictatorship practised in Europe and America, nor is it the new Soviet-style dictatorship of the proletariat.’ This is a New Democracy joined with the global current and the affairs of the Korean state. In short, as Mao stated, this is democratic governance through the alliance of various revolutionary classes excluding the impure elements of traitors to the nation  . . . The realization of democracy through the exclusion of pro-Japanese and traitors to the country and nation and the formation of a true popular front are what we have been hoping for. This we can again ordain as the ‘path toward progressive democracy’.12

If this was a central moment in the Korean communist movement, in which the potential power of the concept of nation was re-evaluated, was this, then, nationalistic or communistic? Under national (minjok) communism, even though nationalism could be disavowed, the nation could not be. What would remain as a configurable political subject if ‘nation’ were removed in opposition to ‘traitor to the nation’? For instance, the construction of national culture was re-evaluated under the conditions of ‘a struggle against imperialism and fascism, and a struggle to clean up feudal vestiges’. In short, the construction of national culture based on the condition of ‘the shared joy and delight of production’ was positively appraised through ‘historical-social limitations of a world culture in which everyone could share a genuine, intimate communal sense’.13 Under the global nature of the international communist movement that posited Asia as a regional mediation unit, this practice was retro-fitted and re-presented as ‘the national’. However, despite the appealing force of negative expressions like ‘pro-Japanese’ and ‘traitor to the nation’, this sort of removal engendered the propagation of multiple symbols for the representation of all that ‘remained’ after the negative forces were removed. Eventually, the Communist Party became the proletarian party or the people’s worker party, and the term communism faded away until it was unutterable. Negation of negation is indeed powerful, but it is a passion without substance.

The principle of progressive democracy was above all a form of realism based on ideological plurality in the division of the Korean Peninsula by the US–Soviet occupation. In this process, the three vectors of history, region and subjectivity were considered. First is the theory of the five stages of history by which the Comintern or Soviet’s international campaign assigned the post-liberation Korea to a ‘stage’ of bourgeois democracy. Second is Asia as a regional limitation. Mao’s move towards New Democracy Theory was a shift away from the so-called historical development limitations and regional conditions of Asia, which were, for Marx, a conundrum in his theories of Asian stagnation and the Asiatic Mode of Production. Asia, considered as an instance of the fine-tuning of the global communist movement for regional mediations, utilized ‘situation analysis’ and ‘strategies and tactics’ while applying the problem of ‘the minjok’ under the de-/post-colonization sequence. Third is the nation (minjok). The international tasks of overcoming imperialism and fascism, as well as the domestic tasks of dissolving colonial and feudal vestiges, brought about the development of multiple revolutionary classes for the establishment of a democratic state. The all-encompassing name for such classes was the nation, which was equated with compatriots and the working masses.

In the achievement of mass organization and subject formation, the latent power of the nation was of the greatest consideration. In post-liberation South Korea, the liquidation of pro-Japanese elements and traitors to the nation was presented as the core task in this communist opportunity. Although changes occurred by way of the three elements of world history, Asia, and the minjok, all were based on ‘democracy’, and despite the subject formation of the people, the workers and the masses were built within a framework of minjok liberation. Democracy became the fodder of the enemy, and along with discourse on state construction, it was reduced to a liberal democracy marked by electoralism. This was not a strategic failure, but rather a failure of concept and symbol.

Communism/Democracy/Nationalism: From Double Negative to Double Alternative

An idea always requires a concept. Concepts mediate between lofty abstractions and practical campaigns. The communist ‘frugality’ displayed by the liberation-era Asian communist movement displayed the impossibility of rapid communist evolution outside Europe, due to regional or local limitations and historical stage theory. Asian communism remained floundering in that notorious net of the Asiatic Mode of Production until the Chinese Communist Revolution, in certain cases even until the 1960s, only to continue in altered form as ‘semi-feudalism’ during the apotheosis of the South Korean social movements of the 1980s. What state are we in now? Looking back at the theses of the Comintern, this question relates to the approvals and oppositions to important decisions after 1942 by the ‘communist fatherland’ – the Soviet Union. Pak Hŏn-yŏng’s claim, ‘Whether the Communist Party of Korea emerges in an era of unlawfulness or lawfully, it supports the bourgeois democratic class and the construction of democracy’, was true both internationally and locally.

Between vernacular communism and communistic vernacularism – or, more exactly, national communism and communistic nationalism – there were numerous stages, each of which required the ‘idea of communism’ to be concealed in order for the struggle to ensue. Under such a restriction, the discourse and theories concerning South Korean communism’s social formation and political circumstances have relegated the ideology of communism to a state of immaturity, in which it is always ‘too early’ for implementation. The difficulty of this indeterminable signifier was induced not by the essential issue of the common or property question, but rather by the imposition of stage theory. Stage theory that calculates the extent of temporal delay, that produces numerous metaphors about communism, metaphorical stages, still lie in our path. Presented in a schema à la Roman Jakobson, South Korean communism is composed of metaphors in the impulse for similarity while in a state of suppressed impulse for contiguity, for metonymy. (‘Communism [is] . . . progressive democracy . . . populism . . . labour centrism . . . national liberation . . . Third Worldism . . . and an extreme categorization under the regime of national division which includes all of these would be “commie” or “red”.’) Therefore, this communism (through stages of broad yet tightly woven metaphors) can never be gathered into a history of expressions. When the conditions of history are stages and its divisions are prohibitions, what it reaches is the indeterminateness of communist ideology.

What results from multiple democracies – including controlled official democracies – with the adjectival metaphors of locally bounded concepts is obvious. If, according to conceptual history and speech theory, essential and inevitable relationships exist between speech acts and movement, no matter what we take up as ‘Idea’, we will at some point end up fighting for supplementation or proxy ideology. For instance, this eventual fighting for democracy, what will it look like, you ask?

The essential difficulties lie in democracy. As Slavoj Žižek claims, ‘In democracy, one can fight for truth, but not decide what IS truth.’ As for South Korean democracy, upon what is it founded? What sort of truth does it desire? What type of decisions has it made? In a society that demands democracy itself as absolute truth, this is an inevitable problem possessing the actual practice of the concept of democracy. As an example of a state in which the primary factors of realistic constraints, although removed, still remain connected to the ‘concept’, the adjectival limitations that result from substantive absence have arguably accomplished nothing in the end. Reclaiming a concept from the enemy is always more difficult than fighting for one’s own concept. The same can be said of Asia or minjok. Asian communities, irrigation cultivation communes, the Asiatic Mode of Production, Asian identity, and other negative limitations – after their dissolution by the strong growth of Korean and other Asian economies, these may be converted to positive limitations, or even competencies.

Things like democracy with Asian values and Korean-style democracy are examples of this. When concepts such as ‘Our Socialism’, Chinese- style socialism, and conversely Korean-style democracy and Asian-style capitalism emerged, these local limitations were construed as exclusively conservative by both ends of the spectrum. On the other hand, although there were attempts to recapture this type of limitation in a manner similar to Christianity’s fulfilment theory (for example, the claim of ‘global democracy’ by Kim Dae-jung that the tradition of democracy had existed in Korea and Asia also, and was fulfilled by the [re]arrival of the [Western] institution, argued against Singaporean ‘patriarch’ Lee Kuan Yew’s outlook on Cultural Destiny and Asian Values), the fact that this logic is advantageous to the logic of tradition/democracy is certain. The conceptualization of regional limitation that included official, state-directed nationalism and resistance nationalism (Korean nationalism ≠ populist nationalism, minjok restoration ≠ minjok liberation) was endlessly propagated, and in fact as long as this was accepted, animosity often vanished. (As long as one’s subjectivation process is aligned with the nation, anyone could say that they lived for the nation.)

The course proceeds on and on, up to those Muslims who dream about a specific Arab modernity that would magically bypass the destructive aspects of Western global capitalism . . . The recourse to multitude is false not because it does not recognize a unique fixed ‘essence’ of modernity but because multiplication functions as the disavowal of antagonism that inheres to the notion of modernity as such. (Žižek, Organs Without Bodies, p. 186.)

The history of South Korean communism displays the dynamics of a process that is marked by the inosculations of locally limited yet disparate and alternative adjectives on the one hand, and the disavowal of hostilities internal to society by exclusion, on the other. The man who appropriated national liberation and progress in the name of national restoration, autonomy, and Korean-style democracy is Pak Chŏng-hŭi, known for his theory of the defeat of communism through unification of the peninsula, the successor to Japanophilism, and bulldozer-style high modernism, all for the sake of minjok revival.

Communism has fought an extended battle in the name of democracy and the nation. However, the true propaganda of capitalism was always democracy, and ‘today the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It’s called Democracy.’ It is claimed that all capital is international ‘national capital’. After struggling for liberation from state domination and authority by daily gatherings at the public square, only to continue the suffering of incomparably arduous, inevitable political existence, it is difficult to deny the empty, though earnest, signifier that is democracy. In South Korea, where non-democratic signifiers of liberation are prohibited, Žižek’s question, ‘Do those who want to distinguish another (“radical”) democracy from its existing form and thereby cut off its links with capitalism, not commit the same mistake?’ is unavoidable and demands attention.14

The history of the historical concept of democracy as substitution for the ideology of communism, as laid out in this chapter, suggests a particular conundrum for Korean communist history. This is the question of whether ideologies existing only as proxy concepts can arrive at their intended target of their own volition. Have we fought using the ‘concept’ of communism? Through the process of deducing the truth of the ‘idea’ of communism, could we have established it as a sequence of subjectivation while thinking of its place in history? Could the Idea of communism or the Real of communism still exist without communistic practices or speech acts? There ‘were’ four methods of reading about, writing about, and acting towards communism in South Korea: 1) On communism, speaking about something other than communism. Where the conceptual development and ideological outlook of communism were stymied, substituting symbols and imaginations for communism were inevitably produced. Things like progressive democracy, new democracy, coalitional democracy, and democracy of the working masses appeared as proxy metaphors in a non-metonymic development. Periodically, the names of ‘places’ (Cheju, Yŏsun, Puma, Kwangju!), ‘events’ (3 April, 18 May 1987, June!), or ‘objects’ (barricades, Molotov cocktails, candlelight!) themselves would also become metaphors. 2) Conceptualization through regional/local limitations. While spatial limitations in categories such as ‘Asian’ or ‘national’ expressed the vernacularity of South Korean communism, they also produced endless temporal stages (stage theories). Not where, but ‘when’ are we, and who are we with? As proxy concepts and restrictions of spatialized historical time came together, ‘vernacular communism’, which cannot be called communism, emerged. I call this a ‘step of metaphor’. 3) The practice of negative negation. The third method of reading and writing about, or acting toward communism is ‘removing and reading’ negated adjectives and prefixes like the ‘anti-’ in anti-communism, or ‘writing in double negatives’, such as in anti–anti-communism. Removal and hyphenation became serialized in the negative ‘movement’ and ideological imagination. Yet the lack of philosophical content resulted in encounters with the Real. 4) The ‘letters’ of communism that cover the ground and capture the mind. This was where the method of writing and reading what was prohibited may be found. However, the ideology of the common – because it was the language of communism – could not be made public. This reading and writing lingered in the ethics of the mind, or was substituted by a ravaged body that represented the vestiges of the movement. The ‘treasured documents’ of a dead person littering the ground are but one symbol of the South Korean communist movement.15 At times these situations came to be viewed as the exclusion of the development of concept, hostility towards theory, and the establishment of the real as absolute. The combination of the last two difficulties, 3 and 4, was deemed to constitute ‘imagination without symbols’. This is because negative negation, such as the opposition to anti-communism, resembles ‘object a’ as an indeterminable concept, or perhaps the symbol X as the redacted, the erased, a purely negative concept of limitation (grenzbegriff).

Of course, if there was a history to the debate, then a fierce public debate also raged on the issue of the common. In particular, I have not yet mentioned another sequence in the 1980s, the exception to an exception. At any rate, it is impossible to write off the ideology of communism without speaking in terms of inequality, reading and conversion, demonstration, exile and asylum, arrest and imprisonment, escape and border-crossing (and sometimes betrayal or secession), reinstatement, campaigning and holocaust. The horror within the real appeared in the form of deranged symbols. Korean communism? The ‘Korean communism’ or ‘Korean communist’ I speak of today is in fact an impossible signifier that functions as the subject (of a sentence). Historically, ‘Korean communism’ has been an underground language, a void signifier. As soon as the signifiers that substitute for ‘communist’, such as the nation, the demos, the populace and the workers, connected with an event, become personalized, the impulse for public safety to drive the entire social movement into ‘commies’ and ‘spies’ continues. Despite the void and substitution-supplementation, the categorization of the ‘communism’ imagined by the regime operates omnidirectionally. On the other hand, the idea of communism is infinite. If the seemingly unlimited analytic ability of the regime is an artificial infinitude within the bounds of its anti-communist manifestation, then the Idea of South Korean communism is a sublime infinitude. If we say that modern philosophy can begin from the fixedness of the subject, then the communism that could not be located in ‘subject’, ‘actor’, and ‘clear-cut identification’ was not the object of philosophical inquiry in South Korea, but rather the ‘object a’, the very wellspring of truth and desire.

Reading the linguistic landscape is akin to ascending an endless metaphorical staircase. Between the steps or stages of this metaphorical staircase is the negation of negation, and it is on this point that I shall conclude. According to Balibar, when considering the bankruptcy of twentieth-century real socialism, communism must be formulated in terms of an alternative to the alternative, as it was historically realized. But we cannot simply interpret this as asking: ‘Do you have an alternative?’ In searching for infinite truth within limitless possibility, we must enter in through portals of events. Metonymy realizing communism – eventualizing the unfolding of the conceptual movement through revolt – desire without yielding.

The question of whether we have ever had a performative understanding of communism has always encountered the predetermined task of the negation of negation. This is its limitation, but also its potentiality. The void of ‘ideology’ between metaphors and negatives also means infinity. Although paradoxical, there is some truth in the violence of the expression ‘tin-can commie’ (kkangt’ong ppalgaengi). The history of South Korean communism is really the history of the tin-can commie. When a can is filled, a prison is completed. However, at the point when the can overflows, the idea becomes both an ‘alternative’ and an ‘alternative to an alternative’. Let us refrain from just filling the can of the enemy with substance. Filling the enemy’s can (liberal democracy) with our substance is the very cause of our current tragedy. Between the historical and current sequence of the negation of negation (anti-anti-communism) and the practical question of an alternative to the alternative (alt-communism), South Korean communism remains an ideological hypothesis. The day when communist ideologies are not replaced by broken faces and substitution supplementations will soon come. Think in the standstill.


1. Hwang Kyo-an, Kukka poanpŏb (National Security Law), (Seoul: Pak Yŏng-sa, 2011), p. 3. Suspicions of interference by the National Intelligence Service in the South Korean presidential election of 2012 through psychological warfare against the North, or some broader concept of national security, have been denied. Anti-North psychological warfare is claimed to be a form of defence against actions of the North Korean Communist Party. As long as the domain of security encompasses human ‘psychology’, this law has no exteriority. In fact, the National Security Law was promulgated in 1948, five years before the actual criminal law. Article 1 of the law, referring to ‘those who violate the constitution, assume government authority, or form organizations or associations whose purpose is to rebel against the state’ is nearly equal in its range of application to the colonial-era Maintenance of Public Order Act, Article 1 of which referred to ‘those who organize associations whose purpose is national revolution’.

2. From the founding of a separate government in South Korea until the autocratic Revitalizing Reform (Yusin) government based on ‘Korean-style democracy’ began in 1972, the most comprehensive, systematic and substantial work on communism was Kim Hyŏng-uk, Kongsan chuŭi ŭi hwaldongkwa silchae (‘The Activities and Reality of Communism’) (Kwangmyŏng ch’ulpansa, December, 1972). Known as the J. Edgar Hoover of South Korea, he was, from 1963, the longest-serving head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, for six years and three months.

3. To quote one Korean prime minister’s reply to the National Assembly, ‘The national Policy of [South] Korea is not democracy but anti-communism’ (Kim Chong-p’il, 21 September 1971, National Assembly Reply). Roughly fifteen years later, when an opposition party assembly member pronounced that ‘the national policy of Korea must be liberation, not anti-communism’, he was arrested during the assembly session (15 October 1986).

4. The National Security Law System that protects against direct and indirect infiltration by the North Korean Communist Party is based on a constitution that prescribes that all territory on the Korean Peninsula is national (South Korean) territory, stipulates that the political system north of the truce line is an anti-state organization, and considers the communist ideology that directs the North’s system and related organization membership, meetings, communications and utterances to be instances of ‘giving aid/comfort to the enemy’, or ‘sympathizing with the enemy’, and punishable. The Anti-Communism Law and the anti-system and system critique ‘communist affiliation’ which it regulates have both at once acted as the categorizing ‘generic singular’.

5. I will define the relationship between Idea and Concept in the following way: if Concept is a linguistic unit that projects comprehensive capacity for the universal treatment of matter into the symbolic narrative of History, then Idea can be termed an immutable constant that exists beyond historical context. According to Hegel, there is real unification between living truth and concept that is ideology, and it is here that concept always has negative meaning. As the negativity of concept appears as force, this is able to become the logic of existence. In the best instance, concept is the ‘shape’ of idea. If Idea is regulative, Concept is reflective. According to Alain Badiou, ‘We will say that an Idea is the possibility for an individual to understand that his or her participation in a singular political process (his or her entry into a body of truth) is also, in a certain way, a historical decision’ (Badiou, ‘Idea of Communism’, p. 3). On the other hand, concept refers to the diverse linguistic practices of particular speakers performed within the concrete context of a certain era – in short, both the element of a symbolic narrative and the leading language in a given situation. Concept, becoming the ‘expressions’ of an individual and recorded as historical symbol, should be understood as regulative rather than reflective.

6. Sin Nam-ch’ŏl, ‘Minchu chuŭi wa hyumanijŭm – Chosŏn sasang munhwa ŭi tangmyŏn chŏngse wa kŭkŏs ŭi kŭmhu panghyang e taehayŏ’ (‘Democracy and Humanism: On Current Thought and Culture of Chosŏn and its Future Direction’) (April, 1946), in Chŏng Chong-hyŏn, ed., Sin Nam-ch’ŏl munchang sŏnjip II (‘The Writings of Sin Nam-ch’ŏl, Vol. 2’) (Seoul: Sŏngkyunkwan University Press, 2013), p. 220.

7. Pak Hŏn-yŏng, ‘Chosŏn minjok t’ongil chŏnsŏn kyŏlsŏng e taehayŏ’ (‘On the Founding of the Korean National United Front’) (20 October 1945), in Chosŏn inmin ege tŭrim (‘To the People of Korea’) (Seoul: Pŏmusa, 2008), p. 21. This work was presented under the title Communist Party of Korea’s Central Committee representative, Pak Hŏn-yŏng.

8. Yi Kang-guk, Minchu chuŭi Chosŏn ŭi kŏnsŏl (‘The Construction of Democratic Chosŏn’) (Seoul: Pŏmusa, 2006), p 87.

9. Pak Ch’i-u, ‘Minchu chuŭi ŭi chinjja wa kajja’ (‘Democracy, the Real and the Fake’), in Yun Tae-sŏk and Yun Mi-ran, eds, Pak Ch’i-u sŏnjip (The Collected Writings of Pak Ch’i-u), (Incheon: Inha University Press, 2010), p. 577.

10. Paek Nam-un, ‘Ilbanjŏk minchu chuŭi, kongsan chuŭi, Chosŏn kuse chuŭi’, (‘Common Democracy, Communism, and Chosŏn Salvationism’), Chosŏn minjok ŭi chillon chaeron (‘The Chosŏn Nation’s Truth Review’), (Seoul: Pŏmusa, 2007), p. 131.

11. Pak Ch’i-u, ‘Chŏnch’e chuŭi wa minchu chuŭi: Sinsaeng Chosŏn ŭi minchu chuŭi rŭl wihayŏ’ (‘Totalitarianism and Democracy: For the Rebirth of Chosŏn Democracy’)) Pak Ch’i-u sŏnjip (The Collected Writings of Pak Ch’i-u), (Incheon: Inha University Press, 2010), p. 207. 
12. Sin Nam-ch’ŏl, ‘Minchu chuŭi wa humanijŭm – Chosŏn sasang munhwa ŭi tangmyŏn chŏngse wa kŭkŏsŭi kŭmhu panghyang e taehayŏ’ (April 1946), in Chŏng Chong-hyŏn, ed., Sin Nam-ch’ŏl munjang sŏnjip II, (The Collected Writings of Sin Nam-ch’ŏl), (Seoul: Sŏnggyunkwan University Press, 2013), pp. 221–2. 

13. Sin Nam-ch’ŏl, ‘Minjok munhwaron’ (‘The Theory of National [Korean] Culture’) Sin Nam-ch’ŏl munjang sŏnjip II, (The Collected Writings of Sin Nam-ch’ŏl), (Seoul: Sŏnggyunkwan University Press, 2013), pp. 186–7.

Žižek, Organs without Bodies, pp. 186–7. The battle between the adjectives ‘original or cosmopolis’ and ‘indigenous or vernacular’ is the perennial debate between ‘Democracy’ and ‘Asian Values’. Does there remain anything to obtain from the contraposing of the original/radical democracy in our style, Chinese-characteristic, Asian, Korean and Japanese-style democracy?

15. Im Kyŏng-sŏk, Ijŭl su ŏmnŭn hyŏngmyŏnggadŭl ŭi taehan kirok (‘The Unforgettable Records of the Revolutionaries’),(Seoul: Yŏksa pipy’ongsa, 2008), p. 229.

  The Idea of Communism 3: The Seoul Conference was published by Verso in July.

Filed under: history, korea, philosophy