South Korea’s Nuclear-Energy Entanglements and the Political Temporality of Ecological Democracy

Colloquium | February 6 | 4-6 p.m. | Doe Library, Room 180

 Nan Kim, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

 Center for Korean Studies (CKS)

Compared to all other countries with large nuclear-energy programs, South Korea maintains by far the most densely concentrated cluster of nuclear reactors in the world, but only in recent years have civic groups obtained official data to confirm this. Given that South Korea’s significant reliance on nuclear energy is itself a legacy of military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, what does the inheritance of an authoritarian-era energy infrastructure mean for contemporary democratic politics in thinking and practice? The late-stage dimensions of South Korea’s civilian nuclear-energy program have included activist responses to the controversial siting of nuclear-waste repositories and high-voltage transmission lines, as well as the energy-policy calculus regarding whether to complete construction on what may well be the last of the country’s nuclear reactors. This talk analyzes key controversies concerning nuclear-energy infrastructure during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Connecting nodes of contestation, deferral, and the unknown, I argue that an improbable convergence of circumstances brought to light by a pair of minor earthquakes, epicentered at the city Kyŏngju in 2016, would reveal how the uncanny timescales of nuclear-fuel cycles re-configure the terms of political processes surrounding the contingent futures of nuclear energy.

Nan Kim is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is the author of Memory, Reconciliation, and Reunions in South Korea: Crossing the Divide, which won the 2019 Scott Bills Memorial Prize from the Peace History Society. Her work has been published in The Journal of Asian Studies, Verge: Studies in Global Asias, The Seoul Journal of Korean Studies, and The Routledge Handbook on Memory and Reconciliation in East Asia. She is on the editorial boards of Critical Asian Studies and Public History & Museum. She is a member of of an international collaboration on Korean Environmental Humanities organized by EnviroLab Asia (Claremont Colleges) and the Center for Critical Korean Studies (UC-Irvine). She received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from UC-Berkeley.

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