Democracy is More than a Political System: Lessons from South Korea’s Democratic Transformation
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 2016-17 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 labelled communist and therefore a threat to national security. The de-legitimization 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 meant that power, 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 fifteen 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 campaigning7 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 tradeoff can be identified.
State patterns established under authoritarianism might not simply disappear with democracy. The language of democratization, by placing the analytic focus on the future, privileges a forward-looking view. Democratization, though, is just as much about tearing down authoritarian structures as it is about creating something new. Analysts in South Korea write about “de-authoritarianization” (t’algwŏnwijuŭi, which might also be rendered as “post-authoritarianization”). This term points to the task of undoing authoritarian patterns. This framing immediately raises question: What elements of the prior regime need wiping away? Which elements should be considered authoritarian and which just part of the state?
The biggest de-authoritarianizing steps in South Korea occurred with the constitutional revision of 1987-88, followed by other reforms reaching into the mid-1990s. By those controlling the process, de-authoritarianization was overwhelmingly imagined as a rolling back of the high tide of repression. The focus was on undoing the most repressive aspects of rule, aspects which had taken form in the early 1970s. Repression had intensified after Park took action in October 1972 to undermine the existing political institutions. Concerned domestically about growing support for the opposition and, given the US struggle in Vietnam, fearing American withdrawal from the regime, Park in essence launched a coup against his own government. In doing so, he followed the example of Ferdinand Marcos who, three weeks prior, had undertaken a similar measure and had not faced serious repercussions from Washington. Park then unveiled a revised constitution that removed the directly-elected presidency, effectively making Park president for life, and raised insurmountable barriers to the opposition gaining control of the National Assembly. Park’s rule became more violent and arbitrary from this point onward. After Park’s assassination in 1979, a protracted coup led to the promulgation of another constitutional revision but one that largely continued the practices established by Park. General Chun Doo-hwan became the next civilian president.
The post-1972 Park and Chun regimes were seen as targets of de-authoritarianization. A top priority was reinstating the directly-elected presidency. Another was revising the electoral system so that National Assembly elections would be fairer. Restoring the political rights of major dissidents was another promise of Roh Tae-woo’s June Declaration of 1987 that paved the way for constitutional reforms. Repression by the state’s coercive apparatuses declined markedly. Security forces were deployed less freely in domestic politics. In a slower and steadier way, the military was removed from political life. Under former opposition figure Kim Young-sam, military figures were pushed away from electoral politics.
There were other elements of authoritarianism that political actors aimed, unsuccessfully, to remove or reform. An example is the National Security Law. Rhee Syngman, the country’s founding president, established the law in late 1948 in order to give the government an extra tool for fighting alleged agents of Pyongyang. It was inspired by the security law that the Japanese had used to control Koreans. As with emergency laws in many US-allied parts of East and Southeast Asia, the National Security Law gave the state enormous unchecked powers for detaining and punishing those suspected of working for the DPRK. The law was frequently used to deal with domestic critics of the regime. In one notorious case, the law was deployed to detain Progressive Party leader Cho Pong-am in 1958, after he had done surprisingly well in the 1956 presidential election. Cho’s party was dismantled while, the next year, Cho was executed. Under Park Chung-hee, especially in the 1970s, the National Security Law was widely used against the population. Dissidents and suspected dissidents were punished harshly. Because the law renders constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties irrelevant, the National Security Law stands in profound tension with the constitution.9
In the late 1980s there was a debate over the National Security Law. Opposition figures such as Kim Dae-jung advocated that it be overhauled. Pro-regime elements argued that the law remained necessary and to remove it would endanger national security. Kim’s position lost. A further attempt at abolishing the law in the early 2000s also failed. Conservatives continued to argue that it was necessary, conveniently ignoring how the law had worked in practice. Meanwhile, its use in society did decline—only to grow again in the 2000s. Each year, hundreds continued to be detained under the National Security Law.10
Like the National Security Law, much of the pre-1972 public order remained intact. The directly elected presidency was not a new institution but a return to the past. The 1948 constitution had given the duty to select the president to the National Assembly; Rhee had later introduced direct elections for the presidency in order to free himself from dependence on legislators. The legal infrastructure of electoral politics stayed in place. These include the regulations on election campaigning, the Political Parties Act, and the election commission. Neither during the constitutional reform of 1987 nor in later post-transition administrations did these institutions become targets of de-authoritarianization.11 Democratization was not a re-thinking of the entire state. It was more a matter of removing the most repressive elements, even though this meant leaving much of the authoritarian state and the established patterns of state-society relations intact.
Existing meanings of “democracy” could also be drawn upon in designing the democratic regime. Most prior institutions had been introduced in the name of democracy. The 1948 constitution appears to be a basically liberal document. Yet it was “Cold War liberalism,” in which the criteria for democracy were shallow, that permeated the early order. The security imperative dictated that “democracy” allowed generous exceptions to the upholding of civil liberties. Fighting the scourge of communism justified all sorts of exceptions, because it—rather than dictatorship—was positioned as the opposite of democracy. This logic had a fundamental impact on the normative order and on public ways of talking about democracy. These meanings could be drawn upon during the democratic transition of 1987 and beyond. “Democratization” did not necessarily imply a convergence with forms of rule elsewhere.
The single-shot nature of South Korea’s constitutional revision contributed to this form of de-authoritarianization. Roh Tae-woo, the incoming chief of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, announced a program of reform in a way that allowed him to take credit for the opening and set its terms. This move placed him in a good position to win the first open presidential election. The constitutional reform was a negotiation between the ruling party and the existing opposition, including proxies for the dissidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. The grassroots organizations that had led the demonstrations were excluded from the process. This arrangement might be contrasted with a more protracted transition like Indonesia’s, where elections were held first, and the resulting assembly was tasked with revising the constitution. Constitutional reform proceeded over years rather than months and involved exhaustive negotiations. While both the Indonesian and South Korean post-transition constitutions were presented as revisions to founding constitutions rather than new constitutions, Indonesia’s was a fundamental departure from earlier versions. In South Korea, the priority of the parties to the reform process had little incentive to open the political system radically.12 The opposition wanted a chance to win the presidency and gain a majority in the National Assembly. Undertaking deeper reform, especially changes that might open the political system to forces outside the establishment, was not a priority.
These continuities became especially apparent with the ascent of Park Geun-hye to the presidency in 2013. She hired advisers who had been associates of her father, Park Chung- hee, during the 1970s. The intelligence agency became active again in politics, especially in illegally influencing the election that Park won in 2012. In her first year in office, she made use of a constitutional clause—written decades earlier—to disband a minor progressive party for posing a threat to the democratic order. Observers described these trends as representing an illiberal turn, and they were based on aspects of the old order that had not been fully removed.13
None of this is to say that the democratic transition produced a regime that was identical to the first civilian Park Chung-hee regime of the 1960s. The democratic system became more competitive and more protective of civil liberties than ever before. Different parties gained control over government. However, the forces that designed the democratic transition did not fundamentally re-think the state-society relations that had been built from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Electoral politics—at the core of most understandings of democracy—remained profoundly influenced by institutions established earlier and for clearly illiberal purposes. Because de-authoritarianization unfolded this way, the state forms noted by Choi, Cho, and Chang, who are cited above, could remain significant past the democratic transition.
The lesson here is that democratization was not about creating an entirely new form of rule. This lesson travels well beyond South Korea. While there are many forms that a transition can take, they all involve dismantling parts of the existing order. Any democratization project is also a de-authoritarianizing one. The language of democratization guides our attention away from this element.
Democracy is more than a political system
What is most impressive about South Korea’s democracy is not the formal institutional arrangement but informal engagement by citizens. As disappointing as the party system could be, and as partial as the changes that came with democratization, many non-professional politicians have continuously challenged the system. This has been true both before and after democratization, and its significance is especially clear in light of events since 2016.
Demonstrations have historically been crucial to creating political change in South Korea. Any standard history of the country’s democratization makes moments of mass protest the key points in the story. Such stories open with the “April Revolution” of 1960, when students demonstrated against the electoral manipulation and violence of the Rhee regime. That movement succeeded in toppling the regime. The Kwangju Uprising of May 1980 stands as another key moment, followed by the June Struggle of 1987, the event which prompted Roh Tae-woo’s announcement of liberalization. These movements did not design subsequent institutions, but they provided crucial impetus to change and also a sensibility about the importance of activism for checking government.14
Much of this activism entered the realm of “civil society” after the democratic transition. Some leading figures formed new political parties but failed to establish an electoral presence. The bifurcation between civil society and political parties became a regular feature of politics.15 On the one hand, this structure kept many activists out of the halls of power. On the other, through civil society, people had ways to remind leaders of their presence.
Cultures of activism have experienced change. After the democratic transition, many organizations maintained the confrontational styles of the authoritarian era. Certain labor groups continue to use radical styles, symbols, and slogans. Outside of traditional civil society groups, internet-based activism emerged as a significant political force in the early 2000s, led by individuals who connected to each other over the internet through shared concern about specific issues. Such activism became hugely influential in specific episodes, often linking eventually with established civil society.16 One of the first major political movements that began on the internet was a group supporting the nomination of Roh Moo-hyun, a former human rights lawyer on the margins of party politics, for the 2002 presidential election. This group helped catapult Roh to his party’s nomination, against the odds, and he eventually won the election. Later mobilizations also drew on internet-based activism. The reaction in 2008-9 to concerns about the safety of beef imported from the United States was another episode. The movement frustrated the Lee Myung-bak administration and set a precedent for future demonstrations.
In the Candlelight Movement of 2016-17 independent activism reached a peak. The movement emerged when a major scandal involving Park Geun-hye was disclosed in the media. Park had used her official power to help gain privileges and resources for a close friend, who had also been given inappropriate access to decision-making. Political institutions had failed to detect and address Park’s illegal behavior. The episode angered a society that had been grappling with rapidly growing wealth inequality.17 She had now been unmasked as a contributor to the problem of privileged people unfairly ensuring that their personal networks maintained control over the distribution of wealth and status. Over several weeks, ordinary people gathered in cities to demonstrate peacefully. Following the pattern set in earlier episodes of internet-based activism, they made candles the symbol of their movement. Organized civil society participated, but they agreed to remain largely on the sidelines. Remarkably, and without a great deal of coordination, historic numbers of people joined the weekly demonstrations, calling on the president to step down. The movement remained peaceful. Legislators listened when they voted to impeach the president. In March 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that Park should be stripped of her office and new elections held.
The movement helped to correct a mistake that political institutions had not yet addressed. While democratic liberties were crucial to facilitating this response, the fact that the response was necessary at all suggests that the main political institutions had failed. Ordinary citizens exercising their rights had helped correct the system. It is for this reason that thinking of democracy primarily as a formal system of selecting leaders is of limited value. Such a view does not capture the most impressive elements of South Korea’s democracy.
Apart from correcting institutional failings, the Candlelight Movement generated a feeling of efficacy among ordinary people, especially among young people. The collective effort gave hope that fellow citizens will not tolerate an unresponsive and secretive political elite. Some signs indicate that the gulf between party politics and grassroots activism is being bridged. For example, parties have recruited more members in the wake of the movement.18 Having the example of the Candlelight Movement reminds people—and those in government—that mass action can change the course of politics dramatically.
This development places South Korea at the forefront of democracy globally today. While many countries, including in democracy’s homelands, have struggled with anti-system leaders and the rising power of the far right, South Korea is already fixing a set of serious challenges it has faced. The government elected in 2017, under pressure from the energy of the Candlelight Movement, set out immediately to address the grievances underlying that movement. Priority was placed on reforming parts of the state that had been manipulated, on making the president’s actions more visible, and on developing plans to address rising inequality. That the government set these as priorities follows as much from the popular pressure that had been unleashed in the Candlelight Movement as from the personalities in the administration. South Korea’s recent experience suggests that improvements to democracy come not only from designing and re-designing institutions but also from ordinary people being vigilant in the task of keeping elites in check.
While the Candlelight Movement informed President Moon’s agenda, pursuing this agenda has not been easy. In specific areas, the Moon government made great strides. For example, the administration moved swiftly to restore protections on freedom of speech. The illegal practice of blacklisting artists was abandoned. A journalist and producer, Choi Sung-ho, who had been purged during the Lee Myung-bak administration, was appointed CEO of state broadcaster MBC. In these efforts to protect civil liberties, just as in Moon’s adroit handling of American President Donald Trump so that Koreans feel they are more in charge of inter-Korean affairs, the administration has produced an immediate impact.
In other areas, President Moon finds himself struggling against interests entrenched within the state. Overhauling the prosecution, an institution widely seen as driven by private interests, is proving to be a challenge, despite the tremendous energy devoted to the task. Former heads of the National Intelligence Agency, implicated in illicit meddling in the 2012 presidential election among other indiscretions, are being brought to justice but there are difficulties in disciplining the broader “deep state.” During the Candlelight Movement, it has been revealed, security forces had planned a violent suppression that would have amounted to a pro-Park coup. The Moon government demonstrates a willingness to address these profound linkages between murky elements of the state and particular interests, but the challenge of doing so is immensely difficult.
At an event commemorating the second anniversary of the inauguration of the Candlelight Movement, a representative of the Green Party used the metaphor of tending a garden to capture the conditions for democratic progress. Democracy is not a system that one simply leaves be. Like a garden, it must be continuously managed; otherwise it will not thrive. This apt metaphor offers an important correction to usual ways of thinking about democratization as movement toward a self-sustaining “system.” As has become clear globally in the past few years, democracy can be blown in surprising directions. Constant work is necessary to correct mistakes and remind leaders of their duties to people.
We can learn from South Korea’s experience the importance of caring for democracy. When wider forces were denied opportunities to contribute, chances for improving the country’s democracy were missed. The constitutional reform of 1987-88 is the most significant example of such a missed opportunity. Had the main groups in the National Assembly permitted other forces to contribute to constitutional revision, such as by holding fresh elections first or initiating an extended constitutional reform process, then more inclusive political institutions could have been built. The authoritarianism that required undoing might have been imagined differently. When voices outside of mainstream party politics have been sufficiently loud, politicians have been pressed to respond. This has been the case at a series of major demonstrations, most prominently in the 2016-17 Candlelight Movement.
The lessons outlined here are political rather than technical. That is because improvements to democracy come not from elites tinkering with institutions but from a wide range of civic-minded people taking action. Still, there may be more specific lessons that South Korea has to offer. The impressive record of the country’s civil society has not escaped the notice of neighboring countries. Even in the 1980s, Taiwanese activists marveled at the success of their Korean counterparts. Activists could share their strategies with civil society groups in the region. These would include, for example, strategies for keeping large demonstrations orderly. Lessons of this sort are best explicated by participants themselves.
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17. Kim Hyejin. “‘Spoon Theory’ and the Fall of a Populist Princess in Seoul,” Journal of Asian Studies 76, no. 4 (Nov. 2017): 839–49.
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