Lecture Video: The Rise and Fall of Youth Culture in 1970s South Korea

Lecturer: Matthew VanVolkenburg

Throughout the late 1960s, a form of youth culture influenced by the West began to take shape in South Korea. It was not until 1970, however, that a discourse on youth culture (ch’ŏngnyŏn munhwa) began to develop in the Korean-language press. These media outlets also tended to portray developments in the US and Europe in a sensationalist manner, highlighting “free sex,” nudity, rebellion, and drug use, particularly by hippies. By 1969, bands playing psychedelic and soul music became popular in Korea, while in early 1970 the “new trend” of long hair on men gained coverage. The beach and vacationing also became an integral part of this culture, reflected in 1970’s hit song by the Key Boys, “Go to the beach.” Weekly magazines like Sunday Seoul reported on risqué avant-garde art and revealing fashion shows as well, and by the summer of 1970 young people were said to be caught up in the go-go dancing craze, while some students were reported to be smoking marijuana. These trends culminated in a crackdown on all of these aspects of youth culture at the end of August 1970, one which focused mostly on men with long hair but also targeted avant-garde art.

Such long hair crackdowns would become a common occurrence throughout the 1970s and intensified after the authoritarian Yusin system was established in 1972. In 1975 Park Chung-hee used the defeat of South Vietnam as an excuse to ban all dissent and exercise total control over students on campuses. This was accompanied by censorship of rock and folk music and the sudden arrests of hundreds of young people, particularly musicians, for smoking marijuana. The reason the latter crackdown was so effective – leading to dozens of musicians being banned from performing for life – was that few young people realized marijuana was illegal. Its criminalization dated back to the summer of 1970, when marijuana use among Korean students was exaggerated to justify prohibition and obscure the fact this was being done at the behest of US military authorities. After years of indifference to drug use by US soldiers, the ROK’s sudden cooperation was linked to the planned withdrawal of 20,000 US troops under the Nixon Doctrine. The resulting enforcement of the new law near US bases and nowhere else contributed to ignorance of the law and facilitated the spread of marijuana use, which inadvertently gave the authorities the means to suppress Westernized youth culture while promoting wholesome music and patriotic spirit.

This lecture will focus on the years 1969 and 1970 and make extensive use of photos from contemporary weekly magazines to explore the incipient youth culture which was suppressed by South Korea’s authoritarian government.

Matt VanVolkenburg first arrived in Korea in 2001 and began the blog Gusts of Popular Feeling in 2005. His interest in modern Korean history encompasses film, music, urban redevelopment, reactions to Western culture, and media depictions of foreigners. He contributed research to a case brought before the UN Committee on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination which ultimately ended HIV testing of foreign English teachers. He recently received an M.A. in Korean Studies from the University of Washington where he focused on the topic of this lecture.

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