Korean-American Community’s May 18 Gwangju: From Collective Action to Social Movement

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S/N Korean Humanities Vol.7 No.2 pp.81-113 ISSN : 2384-0668(Print)
ISSN : 2384-0692(Online)

Mikyoung Kim
Former Tenured Faculty, Hiroshima City University

Received January 31, 2021; Revised version received February 18, 2021; Accepted February 28, 2021


There has been very few research on the May 18 Democratization Movement in Gwangju analyzed from the transnational perspective. This study aims to fill the void of existing studies by posing two specific questions. First, why and how Korean-Americans, who were non-politicized minorities, participated in the May 18 Movement? And second, what were the impetuses behind its transformation from collective action to organized social movement? The early responses of the Korean-Americans took on the characteristics of collective action, which later transformed into organized social movement. This article argues that Yoon Han-bong, the last fugitive of May 18 and the first Korean political asylum grantee in the United States, was the main impetus behind such transformation. The transformative mechanisms include Yoon's charismatic leadership, national pride fostered by consciousness-raising education, organizational culture that provided a comfort zone to alienated Korean immigrants, and empowering activist experiences. As democratization progressed in Korea in 1987, confusion and conflict arose over the future directions of Korean-Americans’ May 18 Gwangju movement. The morale and sense of direction deteriorated greatly in part due to Yoon’s permanent return to Korea resulting in organizational demise leaving the legacies of the transnational May 18 Movement in disarray.

Key Words : transnational Gwangju, May 18 Democratization Movement, Korean-American community, collective action, social movement, Yoon Han-bong, Young Koreans United (YKU)

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