Anarchy in the R.K.


anarchism has never been as big in the republic of korea as the sex pistols made it in england. where is vivienne westwood when you need her?

maybe thatí»s why it's pretty hard to find out about the reality of the history of the anarchist movement. maybe ití»s because Ií»m a transient new zealander who only just popped into town 6 months ago flat broke from china. (thatí»s me speaking at the womení»s day rally). Maybe ití»s because my korean language skills are limited to basic survival needs, eg. í░hello respected older woman, how much for a juicy kilo of your finest mandarins?í▒

maybe, but having already made contact with local anarchists through the net before I arrived and having a friend who was already here checking the place out and meeting all the right people, I'd say ití»s for several other reasons.

firstly, there hasn't been a continuous thread of ideas or activity since western anarchist ideas were introduced to east asia in 1906. A chap by the name of kotoku shusui returned to japan from a six month trip to the us. he shocked his various socialist friends by declaring a change of heart and political/philosophical ideas. he brought back with him a mixture of anarcho-communism and syndicalism and began translating of popular anarchist texts of the day into japanese. likewise in china, ideas from the west began spreading as a result of kotoku's return and through connections with chinese students living and working in paris and dissident chinese intellectuals living in tokyo.

in korea, anarchism didn't emerge until after japan had gotten it's clutches in (officially korea was annexed in 1910) and as a result, korean anarchism came of age in an environment where the primary goal was to gain liberation from imperialist oppression. this aim also overshadowed the activities of korean anarchists living in manchuria and japan. they were organising to establish an economic system of mutual aid and worker-based control of production, but predominantly in an effort to better organise the anti-colonial struggle. from those early days until the relative freedoms of the 1990's, anarchists faced the severe repression of a series of colonising forces and military dictatorships, often surviving by a withdrawal from public activity...maintaining contact with each other through private correspondence but not engaging in any other action.

another reason for the difficulty in learning about korean anarchist history is that much of the work of anarchists has been skewed to suit current ideals about who was fighting against japanese imperialism and for what reasons. for example, anarchist shin, chae-ho, who wrote the 'manifesto of the korean revolution' in 1923 is written up in history as a nationalist, as are anarchist anti-imperialists who were imprisoned and tortured at seodaemun prison (a disturbing afternoons visit near tongdimmun station on the orange line, seoul). we are not told they were anarchists, but 'ui-sa,' or 'big event patriotic fighters' which to my mind has a totally different connotation.

finally, a lot of anarchists were involved in the struggle for national liberation alongside nationalists and communists and it can get tricky to make a distinction between a nationalist and an anarchist involved in 'un-anarchist' activities. 


to whit; a provisional korean government in exile was established in shanghai, china in 1919 by

"...the national united front of revolutionary parties and socialistic parties"(1).  among it's members were yu, ja-myeong of the korean federation of revolutionaries and yu, rim of the korean anarcho-communist federation.

their involvement was later justified by korean anarchist ha, ki-rak's vision of

"...'a government of non-governing'. non-government means non rule and non-exploitation and government means the social management of human lives by the people themselves, namely independent self-government. therefore there is no contradiction between the two conceptions of non-government and government." (ha, 1986, p.81)

it seems a pretty dodgy thing for anarchists to be doing...establishing themselves in positions of power; in government no less? and then justifying it with a contradictory assertion that to govern is not to govern!

to my knowledge, this is a unique approach to the anarchist idea of decentralisation of power. most anarchists I know would have more trouble agreeing with ha, ki-rak that they would george woodcock who wrote:

í░the sharp difference between the anarchist conception of strategy and íŽ[that of other movements]íŽarises partly from libertarian individualism and partly from the convictioníŽ that, in a larger sense at least means profoundly effect endsíŽthe anarchists regard all institutions and parties based on the idea of regulating social change by governmental action and man-made laws [sic] as counter-revolutionary. in proof of this argument, they point to the fact that all revolutions carried out by political means have ended in dictatorships; the resort to coercion has transformed them and betrayed the revolutionary ideal.í▒ (george woodcock, anarchism; a history of libertarian movements and ideas, new ed, 1986, p29)



august of 1945. wwII is over and the russian army has attacked the defeated japanese military in what is now north korea. by september, the american military has arrived, a little miffed that russia is expanding and feeling all big and victorious. this is a crucial time for the lefties: "burglar japan"(2) has been defeated, is retreating and there is a chance to rebuild society after the devastation of japanese social and economic pillage.

about 60 anarchists gather in jong-no and establish the 'free society builders league' and the 'farmers and labourers league'. they are interested in exploring the options that face the newly liberated and educating people about them. they discuss how to establish communities and social organisations working toward independence and mutual aid.

of course, it wasn't just anarchists working at this time to spread propaganda about post-colonial possibilities. everyone had their own ideas and with the recent arrival of russia just across the way, socialists were busy promising farmers their own land and espousing ideas of state communism.

members of the government in exile returned to korea as individuals, because the american military forces disallowed their status as a government. yu rim held a lot of personal power and was respected  as old and clever. many were looking to him for direction. he was quoted by a local newspaper saying,

"it seems that the word 'anarchism' has been used as being synonymous with 'non-government' in korea. but it's a misinterpretation of 'anarchism' by japanese scholars. to tell the truth, 'an-' means 'without or not,' and 'archi-' means í«boss or chief, that is compulsory power.' therefore anarchy means 'absence of compulsory power or control.' i am an anarchist who rejects compulsory power, but not a non-governmentist who objects to an autonomous government. an anarchist objects only to a heteronomous government." (ha, 1986, p.122.)

this statement sets yu rim well apart from the larger body of anarchist theorists. while many anarchists will debate the finer points of theory and certainly of practice, it is a basic principle of anarchism that all forms of government, whether by other (hetero-) or not, are coercive and compromising of personal and community autonomy.



as any anarchist can tell you (well, maybe not the 'anti-heteronomous government' kind) power doesn't rest with the people until all power is decentralised. when you are liberated from the clutches of one authority, another lot (in this case the ussr, uk, and the usa) can step in to negotiate a division between resource-rich north and agricultural south, between left and right-wing, further crippling the people's attempts to rebuild society. while this time is generally referred to as 'liberation' because korea was no longer under japanese control, at least one contemporary korean anarchist (my friend manic) doesn't see it as liberation at all, just another occupation by the american military instead of the japanese.

during the struggle for freedom from colonial japan, left and right wing organisations had fought alongside each other although some considered anarchist methods extreme and violent. while there was initially support for their anti- japanese imperialist stance, the right wing later saw the anarchists as an obstacle. when the country was divided, many lefties went north to the socialist state and the nationalist position was strengthened by their departure. this extra strength put extra pressure on those anarchists who chose to remain in the right-wing dominated south.



during april, 1946, anarchists from 'the free society builders league', 'the korean anarchist general federation', 'the black friend league' and 'the league of truth and fraternity' gathered in anui, south kyeungsang province. at the conference, the tumultuous international situation and the rather dire local one was discussed.

since occupation in 1910 japan had been exploiting korean resources as a supply for it's own economic needs and hindering development so that korean-controlled/owned industry was severely retarded. (john crump í░anarchism and nationalism in east asia" anarchist studies, 1996, vol 4, no. 1) the majority of the financial, trade, transport, administrative and productive infrastructure had been controlled by japanese colonists, roughly 3% of the population. at the conference, those interested in rebuilding society were faced with the questions of what to do and how to go about it. what was their response to this situation? how did they unanimously feel they could best meet their own goals of "human freedom" and "the protection of peace"? (ha, 1986, p144).

"we [will] do our best to establish an autonomous and democratic united government for our independent fatherland." (ha, 1986, p13)


there's been a fair amount of criticism leveled at the reformist and nationalist tendencies within the korean anarchist movement, both from within the contemporary movement and externally. in his article "anarchism and nationalism in east asia" john crump examines the reasons for this peculiar interpretation of anarchism .

"...anarchism in korea has been notable for the extent to which it has been permeated by nationalism and also for the korean anarchists' readiness over many years to engage in conventional politics. the immediate reason for these peculiarities of korean anarchism would seem to lie in korea's colonial subjugation by japan from 1910 to 1945 and the division of the country after 1945."  (p 45)

he argues that in the kind of 'third world', anti-colonial setting that existed in korea, anarchist principles of decentralisation of power and local autonomy can easily start to sound like nationalist calls to keep power in the hands of the subjugated people, rather than the colonial power. hence the danger of  "degeneration into nationalism" (crump, 1996, p45). anarchism has not had a strong history in colonised countries, but crump suggests that had it, we might have seen more cases of movements succumbing to nationalism. and this is the nationalism of the subjugated, not of the imperialist power. the desire of a colonised people to be free from their shackles, not the desire of a nation state to expand it's power base. the distinction is important if we are to understand the situation. perhaps this readiness to compromise the cornerstones of anarchism were the desperate measures of people witnessing the carving up of their hopes for a free and independent existence. perhaps they were willing to engage in the pursuit of power because they thought it was the only way to remain part of decision making.

in anui, 1946 conference goers faced the same question that anarchist movements face today...will our principles of non-engagement in party politics completely isolate us from the wider community? are our options to remain ideologically pure, but marginalised or engaged in decision- making within organisations that are hierarchical &/or coercive?


while one arguably more dominant trend veered toward the party politic, a movement was active that sought to make a social, not political organisation.

one venerable elder anarchist i know in seoul, my friend lee mun-chang, was involved in this movement. he was a young single man working in an oriental medicine store when wwII ended and after visiting his hometown he returned to seoul and developed an interest in anarchism. as lee mun-chang tells it, these were heady times when seoul was full of opportunities to hear people speaking about new ideas. people wanted to explore the possibilities for rebuilding society. there were public meetings organised and lee mun-chang took advantage of these times. he met people, one man in particular whom he came to respect very much, who began talking about anarchism with him. he felt a stronger desire to be part of a social grassroots movement than a political one and he spoke with me about the work he considers the most important of his life, his time working with the "farm volunteers association"...

in April 1960, students were rising up against the president and their professors followed them. the students respected their professors very much and when evaluating their activities they asked the professors 'what do we do now?' the anarchist professors told them most people live in the countryside, there is not much land and too many people. they suggested the students go into the rural areas and educate the people about alternatives to the status quo. at the time there was little industry and they concluded they could engage in light industrial manufacturing. in one group we built community workshops, asked the clothing manufacturing industry for a machine and started training.

lee mun-chang was a delegate and worked as a liason between the students, who would travel from seoul during the weekends and the people living full time in the country. one goal of the 'farm volunteers association' was to make a village or town financially independent by manufacturing goods and then selling their products in the city. certainly they were influenced by the likes of kropotkin's "field, factory and workshop", by narodnovick, by the makhnovists, by durrutti's activities during the spanish civil war and certainly a number of anarchists were involved. however, their discourse wasn't fully anarchist, nor were they openly against the government. (manic)

perhaps not, but given the military/political repression facing anarchists and other activists at the time, personal survival was at stake. maybe we harbour romantic notions of defending our beliefs with our lives and maybe a time will come when we have to make this choice. under the dictatorship of lee seung-man these were such times.



from 1961-1980,  years of military control, the state was pushing for the development of heavy industry, gathering people into the cities in the classic industrial 'urban drift' and subsequently destroying the village system. student power was also broken. certainly there was resistance during these years of tyranny, but for the most part the cry was for democracy, for capitalism and the free market. [current president] í░kim dae-jung is famous for his fight for human rights and against tyranny. many people admire him, but there are the same problems. we want other things" (eu-heum).  it wasn't until the democratisation of the 1990's and the spread of internet culture that a new generation of korean anarchists emerged. "our mouths were ungagged".


among these new korean anarchists, there is a diversity of opinion about their predecessors. one prominent young korean anarchist, dopehead zo makes the point that criticism shouldn't be leveled without understanding the situation anarchists found themselves in.   "critics don't know about the background of the particular korean situation. they had no other choice but the nationalist way. when you criticise what they did in the colonial period, you should also know what they did was good. not all nationalism is bad" (dopehead).

he draws an analogy between the capitalist box we fight in contemporary society and the pervasive nationalism of the day:

"we make compromises with capitalism and in the future people will ask 'why did you compromise?' it's unavoidable; capitalism is the existing condition now and then nationalism was the existing condition."

dopehead's point is well made. we inevitably support capitalism, albeit to a greater or lesser degree because we try to find ways not to engage the market, consume less or boycott multinational companies. however, while we struggle under the yoke of capitalism, we are also undeniably supporting it.

my friend fiona, who visited korea last year and became involved in anarchist activities disagrees that this is an accurate analogy:


"Ií»m not altogether sure I agree with this analogy - I think the main power of nationalism in Korea is (and was) that the country has been shit upon by imperialists from all directions for centuries - nationalism/national self-determination could thus be romanticized and struggled foríŽwhereas under capitalism we arení»t making compromises because there is such widespread support resulting from, for example, centuries of communist or fascist dictatorship.  The analogy would be more logical for anarchists fighting communism AND capitalism in Russia I thinkíŽthey might choose to work with anti-communists who were also capitalists.  Lorenzo Komí»boa Ervin makes some interesting points about anarchism and national liberation struggles in í░Anarchism and the Black Revolutioní▒:

í░Anarchists support national liberation movements to the degree that they struggle against a colonial or imperialist powerí▒ (p 55)"


so were the korean anarcho-nationalists forced to compromise with nationalism and conventional political strategies?

well, in none of the above statements about their principles or activities did ha, ki-rak or yu, rim suggest they felt they were 'compromising'. neither is reluctantly engaged in conventional politics or talk about 'the fatherland'. rather, they are working for the liberty of a colonised nation of people, not the liberty of society. their goal was clearly to establish a local, homogenous (read í«koreaní») government, which they felt realised their dreams of autonomy, democracy and unity. they engaged in party politics because they felt this was the way to ensure "the maximum democratic system" (yu, quoted in ha, 1986, p122)

so while this could hopefully be said about the unnumbered anarchists who felt trapped by, and critical of, the nationalist box, prominent anarchists that people looked to for direction seem pretty comfortable with their analysis. furthermore, ha ki-rak was trying to rally support for an anarchist political party as late as 1980. (crump, 1996) to me this doesní»t reflect a compromise of ideas, but an ongoing strategy for political power.

for all the vanguardism going on (by which i mean individuals thinking they know enough to lead other people to liberation), we can hope there were anarchists within the more student/worker-based grassroots movements who were aware of their compromise with decidedly reformist, theories and practices.


some contemporaries, influenced by an older anarchist we all call "harabadji" (grandfather), believe there has never been an anarchist movement in korea (it was all nationalism) and aren't interested. others are more willing to make an attempt, but find it difficult because there are few people around to ask, because the movement wasn't always visible and the old anti-imperialists are fading. 

"i have a prejudice about korean anarchist history. there has been no anarchist activity since 1945, it was all absorbed into the nationalist movement. i want to research the history, but there is no base" (manic).

i found little understanding of the history of the korean anarchist movement among the younger generation. i think partly as a result of this there is a gap between the younger and older anarchists and the perspective, wisdom and experience of older anarchists is lacking in the contemporary scene in korea.

in korea especially the old timers have an understanding of colonisation and have dealt with it, but the young'uns are facing the internationalisation of western culture without the benefits of a unique network of older anarchists who are familiar with imperialism.

" they don't understand the history, they have no standing place" (lee mun-chang). in an effort to understand what he really meant, i mentioned a word that maori speakers in new zealand are familiar with; 'turangawaewae'. this is a place, both physical and meta-physical, where you make your stand. knowing where your roots are and finding clarity in that understanding. whatever your position, it's a stronger one. is this what he meant? he smiled and nodded, "exactly".

while capital is becoming global, so too is the anti-capitalist counter-culture.  in smaller countries with smaller movements there is a danger of looking to the US and europe  and romanticising...thinking about how big and impressive demonstrations were in seattle, or prague. some movements are looking at the international movement against globalisation and blindly adopting it's techniques and philosophy without a sound analysis or even relevance. it's easier to understand how to deal with the neo-colonialism of western dominant-culture than with the neo-colonialism of western counter-culture.


this may account in part for the rather disjointed way in which contemporary korean anarchists have been working.  there have been a lot of actions, street performances, protests...anti-this and -that actions, but no overall coordination, focus or analysis. this has lead to a feeling among the younger set of a lack of integration. there is solidarity certainly, but not unity. some feel they are part of a movement and others don't.

"i believe in a grassroots movement where people gather together through their own problems." (manic). she's looking for people who want to associate together because they have common ground, not because they have come together under a banner of anarchism. "anarchism can easily become just a cultural phenomenon around the university marketplace or the punk scene. anarchism [in korea]has been appropriated by the cultural market".


perhaps another reason for this feeling of disunity is the use of the internet as the primary organising tool. internet use is huge in korea, to the point where concern has developed for all the young'uns spending too much time playing computer games and chatting in cyberspace. the net is certainly a useful tool for exchanging ideas and making international contacts and the seoul-based í«international anarchist leagueí» (i.a.l ;contact has taken an active role in establishing contacts throughout korea and internationally. actually, it's how i got in touch with the crew here. but there comes a point where functional group dynamics suffer as a result of a lack of personal contact.

" we tried to do that [maintain a constant organisation], but we weren't successful. people think the i.a.l is a mailing list" (dopehead). in the past, when i.a.l members organised online they would meet just before the action and then leave again right after it. no analysis, no possibility to discuss the action in person. this reflects the popularity of individualism and the action-centered perspective of some of the younger generation...a perspective which is no different in my experience than the scene in any other country. it's usually the young'uns who are full of passion, but not necessarily full of information. however, in korea the dichotomy between young and old is especially marked...the older anarchists survived because of their lack of action and have taken a more academic, scholarly approach. this gap between the generations and a lack of understanding about the history of the movement here has lead to a feeling of starting from scratch.



the level of organising here has been pretty loose in the past but it feels like they are poised...ready to form a permanent off-line organisation. 

what do they see this group doing?

"i think anarchism in korea should embrace the workers struggle. there is a strong militant workers movement and that is a good force against capitalism" (dopehead). korean society is really hierarchical...about age, gender, educational background...about everything basically.

"koreans find it natural and as an anarchist i find it, you know, bullshit" (dopehead). in terms of overcoming this intense socialisation he feels he's on the starting line, wanting to learn more about anarchism and how to use this knowledge to change society.

dope is interested in working with left wing progressive groups, especially in organising against compulsory military service, which effects every young man in korea. when the police responded to the anti-compulsory military service (a.c.m.s) website ( by shutting it down and requesting the protagonists join them for a chat, peace and human rights groups, the democratic party and the gay and lesbian rights federation became involved, calling for free and open discussion about the issue.

"if you want to do something revolutionary in korea, you should move with the left wing" (dopehead).

compulsory military service maintains a rigid prejudice against women in the workplace. a man who has served his two years two months has this time allotted to his tenure, which is then reached that much sooner. there are also other company benefits which women can't receive and it's this aspect of the issue that interests the anarcha-feminists within the i.a.l.

"my door to enter anarchism is women who are poor, oppressed by men, and government or any other ideology. i'm also interested in part time job workers" (manic).


the freeschool for international solidarity is another project many anarchists are devoting a lot of time to. the freeschool aims to open education to anyone interested in both teaching and studying, hopefully breaking down the rigid traditional confucian-based approach to education. it offers a wide variety of classes including english language through punk rock lyrics and human rights issues in korea. a lot of work has gone into this project. from ití»s inception language barriers have been crossed, group dynamics and collective process debated. there are weekly meetings to thinktank new classes and direction and organise the logistics. (check out the website at

"the korean education system is so fucked up and elitist...if you have no money you can't get an education" (dopehead) and if you can, the curriculum is controlled by the government. by offering an open and no-cost curriculum and encouraging a diverse range of learning subjects the freeschool is directly challenging state control of education and the stranglehold that the rich have on learning.

this project has been fully supported by the 'people's cultural research institute' where lee mun-chang has been working for many years. at one point in ití»s life the centre was called the í«national cultural research instituteí▒ which has raised some debate. does this reflect a lack of commitment to basic anarchist ideas, or a commitment to the survival of these ideas under a series of political and military dictatorships?

now retired, one of lee mun-changsí» major goals is to work with young people and the freeschool has gone some way towards meeting this goal. he is also very willing to share his knowledge about korean anarchist history, not as an unquestionable account but as an individual perspective. in doing so, he hopes to encourage the young people to find their own turangawaewae, knowing the local history of anarchism and moving forward from it. he is also involved in  research with older korean anarchists who continue to meet, but work on a more scholarly level than their younger counterparts.


unlike some earlier actions that seemed to reflect the desire to follow international trends, both the a.c.m.s campaign and the freeschool project are firmly rooted in the local situation.  everyone i talk to feels like now is the time to start expanding.

"we need more friends, korean especially. we need to allot each person a role because there's been no organisation. i'm sick of the word 'organisation', the left wing have overused it" (manic).

"i have an anarchist mind. i would join a group if it was organised" (eu-heum).


contemporary anarchists are freer to engage in an anarchist discourse than their predecessors. while there is still little tolerance for questioning korean nationalism, for example the need for compulsory military service, the repression faced by activists is far less life threatening in the  democratic era. they have more chances to gather information from the international movement and of not understanding the need for a direction compatible with local circumstances.

the movement here is small and runs the risk of obscurity which is perhaps why, like their historic counterparts and anarchists in other smaller places, some contemporaries are willing to work with other non-anarchist activists. developing links with the strong trade unions and burgeoning feminist movement are a means to establishing an anarchist involvement in the broader korean progressive scene.

a greater understanding of the history of the movement on the part of the younger anarchists would develop a greater level of maturity of analysis of the society we find ourselves in. i doní»t mean by this that all the youngí»uns should grow up, but rather use all the resources at their disposal to understand the work that has gone before them, locally and internationally.

contemporary anarchists in korea are poised to develop their own programme, find their own turangaweawea and join the international anarchist movement in creating grassroots revolution.


1.ha, "a history of the korean anarchist movement", 1986, p.112

2.a term used frequently by shin chae-ho in the "manifesto of the korean revolution, 1923"



My name is eleven greenstones.

No, I chose it.

When i was eight my family moved to a town called tauranga in the north island of new zealand. I was there the longest of any place Ií»ve been and my mum and dad still live there so ití»s home.

For the last few years Ií»ve been travelling around places in the asia-pacific area and I want to keep doing the same sort of thing for a little while yet, but maybe in a different part of the world.

In 1999 I put together a squatting handbook/fanzine called í░Squat? Why not!í▒ (available through barricade books and infoshop, melbourne. Email Thereí»s been a bit of a dry spell since then but once I got into the swing of things I enjoyed putting this piece together.

Korea isní»t renowned for its fiery anarchist history, nor is much known internationally about the contemporary scene. I hope this wee contribution can play a role in understanding the relationship between the old and new Korean anarchist movements, the older and the younger anarchists and even the old and new korea.