Democracy is more than a political system: Lessons fromSouth Korea’s democratic transformation

Erik Mobrand

An assessment of South Korea’s democratization requires acknowledging juxtaposing patterns. On the one hand, the shadow of an authoritarian, Cold War state hangs over the country’s politics. State-society relations constructed under deeply illiberal circumstances did not disappear with the transition to democracy. On the other hand, developments in 2016—2017 proved that South Korea’s democracy is among the most resilient in the world. When political institutions failed to prevent the corruption of an insulated elite, ordinary citizens intervened. While “populism” runs roughshod over democratic institutions elsewhere, South Korea’s democracy has demonstrated a capacity to overcome serious challenges. Optimism and a feeling of empowerment pervade the country at this moment, in stark contrast to the political gloom found elsewhere. South Korea’s democracy stands out as remarkable, even though there are strong elements of continuity from the past that impose restrictions on which voices gain representation.

The lessons from South Korea’s democratization should be framed in terms of an interplay of formal and informal structures. This interplay drives both the problems and successes of the country’s experience. The disjoint between formal institutions and actual political configurations is a prominent theme in leading scholarship on South Korea’s modern political and social transformation. This framing leads to an interlocking set of three lessons from its democratization experience. These lessons relate to authoritarian state-building, the undoing of authoritarianism, and thinking about democracy as more than a set of political institutions.

Authoritarian state-building and its effects

The state features centrally in discussions of South Korea’s modernization. It has become widely understood that the state’s control over finance and tools of industrial policy were crucial components of a successful industrialization drive.1 South Korea has been singled out in the political economy literature as a prime example of the dynamics of a developmental state.2 In research on South Korea’s democracy, the state’s role in society has also been a focus of attention. This attention has been given especially by leading academics in South Korea, some of whose works have gained less attention in English-speaking circles than at home. A crucial point in this work is that today’s democracy must be understood in the context of country that has experienced decades of authoritarian state-building.

South Korea’s most prominent theorist of democracy, Choi Jang-jip, is among those who underscore the country’s particular state-building experience. Choi argues that state mobilization connected with the Korean War—and compounded by the Cold War—prevented South Korea from developing political struggles that correspond to class cleavages, as occurred historically in Western Europe. The Cold War environment gave South Korea’s rulers coercive and symbolic resources for demobilizing labor. Any movement that appeared to articulate for greater representation for labor, or farmers, could be labeled communist and therefore a threat to national security. The delegitimization of these forms of representation meant the political system did not reflect class conflicts. The result was what Choi calls “conservative democratization,” a change characterized by a shift to democratic institutions without an incorporation of various class views into the formal landscape of representation.3 Pak Chan-pyo has elaborated on the linkages between postcolonial state-building and later democracy.4 The main lesson here is that the early state-building experience is a starting point for analyzing today’s democracy.

Cho Hee-yeon, a sociologist who is now superintendent of schools for Seoul, draws attention to state-led mobilization of society in the 1970s as well as to the “monopolization” of power by a social, economic, and political elite.5 The state’s extensive reach in society, and its close ties with big business, meant that power was poorly dispersed across various sectors of society. For Cho, the democratic transition brought an institutional shift that did not automatically address the underlying power imbalances.

The work of sociologist Chang Kyong-sup builds on reflection on both Korean and Chinese societies. Under conditions of a state-mobilized industrialization, the state developed a relationship with citizens that diverged from a liberal model. He theorizes the effect as “compressed modernity,” a form that has wide-ranging and enduring impacts, and describes a mode of “developmental citizenship” that came to define the individual’s place in relation to the state.6 While the public order formally adopted the language of a liberal society, the underlying relationship between citizen and state bears little resemblance to ideas of individual rights and equality among citizens. The actual notion of citizenship focuses more on people’s value in relation to mobilization for growth. In this vision, individuals have few intrinsic rights and explicit hierarchies are created. Chang argues that South Korea’s contemporary public order should be understood in these terms rather than in the terminology of the formal institutional structure.

Each of these academics highlights the way that formal democratic institutions today belie or obscure a more complex and historically rooted state-society relationship. A lesson from South Korea, then, relates to legacies of authoritarian state-building, which can be more clearly identified by identifying specific institutions that were shaped by authoritarian state-building.

One set of examples comes from the laws governing elections and political parties. The Republic of Korea was established in 1948, after three years of rule by an American military government. Over the course of the first 15 years of the republic, its rulers increasingly used legal means to control electoral outcomes. In 1958, an election law was passed that imposed strict limits on campaigning.7 Inspired by a militarist-era Japanese election code, the law reduced opportunities for grassroots candidates and parties to build support. As intended, the law favored the two largest parties, forcing other parties to the margins. This practice of using campaign regulations to sideline competitors became built into the notion of democracy. When a coup in 1961 put a military junta in power, this pattern was disrupted but only temporarily. Two years later, under the guidance of former general Park Chung-hee, civilian rule returned and with it most of the old constitutional and legal order.

The Political Parties Act, introduced by Park in 1963, imposed further restrictions on political organizing. It forced parties to have their headquarters in Seoul, to have a presence across the nation, and to remain disconnected from local areas. This law reinforced a practice of parties acting as capital-based cliques of national elites.8 While this law might be dismissed as merely an authoritarian intervention, using law rather than raw coercion to limit the opposition had significant consequences. The disciplinary power of the state was deployed to make people think that party and electoral politics ought to operate in a certain—restricted— way. The law implanted a norm or expectation about how the political sphere should be organized. These are mechanisms for achieving the “conservative democratization” described by Choi.

Another example is the election commission, introduced with the first elections in 1948 and raised to the status of a constitutional body in 1960. In 1963, the junta renamed it as the Central Election Management Commission (CEMC), serving as the overseer of “democracy.” It was infused with an ethos focused narrowly on the bureaucratic operation of elections, while turning a blind eye to whatever the ruling party did. The CEMC demonstrated little interest in fostering or encouraging values of participation or competition. The election commission’s role was not so much that of fleeting authoritarian manipulation as it was a component of the state that claimed neutrality.

For party and electoral politics, the authoritarian state had mixed effects. One was to set the basis for relatively civil electoral politics. In much of East and Southeast Asia, elections have invited widespread irregularities including vote-buying and threats of violence. Such problems have wracked such places as

Thailand and the Philippines. South Korea’s democratization came without the same development. Others in the region may be envious of South Korea’s election commission for its role in ensuring such problems did not emerge or become too widespread. However, this effect also results from a legacy of the state taking over many of the mobilization functions of parties or other electoral actors. The discipline instilled by the election laws and the commission reduced incentives for cheating and increased the penalties if caught. In theory, there is no reason for electoral civility to come at this cost, but in South Korea, such a trade-off can be identified.

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