The 386 Generation and the Quest for the “Good Country”
Funeral of Lee Han-Yeol, July 9, 1987 © 1987 Seoul City
In this lecture, I draw on the Strauss–Howe generational theory to look at how the “386 Generation” (people born in the 1960s who attended university in the 1980s) sought to turn Korea into a “good country” though a wide range of political and social movements in the 1980s. Though differing in focus, the movements defined a “good country” as a democratic and egalitarian society that was confident of itself on the world stage.
In a 1991 book entitled Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe looked at patterns in generations in the US going back to the colonial period. The authors define a generation as a cohort of people born over roughly a 20-year period that share common beliefs and behaviors developed during childhood and young adulthood within the broader historical and social context of the times.
The 386 Generation, the most populous generation, was born in the 1960s when Korea began transforming itself into an industrialized nation. It attended schools during the 1970s, the harshest years of the Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship. It then entered young adulthood in the 1980s and reacted against the dictatorships of Chun Doo-hwan by offering a vision of Korea as a “good country” that went beyond economic achievement.
As the generation aged, the quest for a “good country” manifested itself in the IT boom in 1990s that sought to apply new technology to create a more open society. In the 2000s, the generation passionately supported the outsider Noh Moo-hyun and more recently took an active role in the candlelight demonstrations against Park Geun-hye. The dominance of the 386 Generation since the 1980s has created tensions with older and younger generations that continue to influence Korean politics and society.
In the lecture, I will draw on my memories of life in Korea as a student of Korean language (1983-1983) and as an English language teacher at (1985-1993). I will refer to articles and images in the mass media from the 1980s to the present.
Robert J. Fouser holds a B.A. in Japanese language and literature, and M.A. in applied linguistics, both from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in applied linguistics from Trinity College Dublin. He studied Korean language intensively at Seoul National University in the 1980s. During his time in Japan, he taught foreign language education at Kyoto University and developed the Korean language program in Kagoshima University. From 2008 to 2014, he taught Korean as a second/foreign language education at Seoul National University. He also is the translator of Understanding Korean Literature (1997), co-author of Hanok: The Korean House (2015), and the author of two books in Korean Mirae Simin ui jogeon[Conditions for Citizenship in the Future] (2016) and Seochon Hollik [Seochon-holic] (2016). He is currently writing a book on the history of foreign language learning and teaching. He also writes regular columns for media outlets in Korea.