Most political-economic models of autocratic regime stability frame autocrats as “stationary bandits” – motivated primarily to extract as much wealth from citizens as they can without being overthrown. Why, then, do so many autocratic regimes enact highly unpopular and unprofitable cultural policies that often accelerate their downfall? How do opposition groups make use of unpopular cultural policies to expand their networks for mass protests? And why are some cultural policies more destabilizing than others?
This comparative research approaches these questions through three major autocratic regimes of 20th Century Korea: the Japanese colonial government, the Yushin regime of 1970s South Korea, and the communist regime that rules in North Korea to this day. Through use of South Korean media archives, interviews with protest participants, and cultural output from the period, I show how the Yushin era cultural policies were associated with the earlier Japanese cultural rule in ways that garnered popular sympathy for South Korea’s democracy activists across urban/rural and class divisions. I also review North Korean propaganda and cultural products – particularly fiction and art – to show how the DPRK evangelized its own cultural policies in ways that effectively pre-empted potential cultural activism in the North.
My principle innovation is in proposing a new angle on the classic collective action problem: in culturally oppressive regimes, protest groups can signal their affiliation and attract a larger and more diverse following by making use of symbols of cultural loss (singing banned songs, breaking official strictures on dress and hairstyle, praising condemned historical figures, etc). Cultural protests are more difficult for a regime to suppress than overtly political acts, and thus provide a safer method of signaling to like-minded followers. However, because of the nature of Korea’s historical class divisions, cultural protests can succeed in uniting class coalitions only if the autocrat’s cultural policies are perceived as moving in a “modernizing” rather than “traditionalizing” direction.