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Democratizing Punishment: South Korean Penal Reform and Cold War Subjectivity, 1945–60


This dissertation traces the development of the early South Korean prison system. It follows changes in prison administration after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule and subsequent division by the United States and Soviet Union in 1945. It examines the use of prisons before, during, and after the Korean War (1950–3) and ends with the fall of the Syngman Rhee regime in 1960. After the 1948 establishment of the Republic of Korea, penal reformers proclaimed the goal of reforming the prison system under the slogan “democratic punishment” (minju haenghyŏng, 민주행형/民主行刑). Though appearing oxymoronic, reformers wielded the slogan when legitimating real changes in penal administration. This dissertation examines successive benchmarks in early ROK penal reform history to reveal that the “democratization” of penal administration was an earnest project to transform South Korea’s prisons into laboratories, factories, and schools for producing ideal citizens. More broadly beyond the Korean context, Democratizing Punishment traces the changing discourse surrounding criminality and reform in the early ROK to explicate the role of punishing society’s others in reflexively producing national identity, solidifying state power, and building the Cold War’s U.S.-aligned bloc known as the “Free World.” It argues that early South Korean prisons were not exceptional, aberrant, or an inadvertent reversion to colonial practices: they operated as designed to produce the ideal South Korean citizen from the negative example of its abject other—the criminal, the communist, and the social deviant.

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