Democratization in Korea: Achievements and Remaining Tasks
Dennis Florig, Hanyang University Graduate School of International Studies

This paper was presented at the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation's Celebration of the first anniversary of the Kim Dae Jung winning the Nobel Peace Prize

I. Kim Dae Jung’s Role in the Democratization of Korea

We are here today to pay our congratulations to Kim Dae Jung on the anniversary of the recognition of his work by the Nobel Peace Committee.  Kim Dae Jung’s story is a tale not just of the triumph of one man, but the determined struggle of millions of Koreans to be free and to end the artificial division that has torn apart their people.  The importance of his example can be seen by the members from so many nations who are here today, not just to pay tribute to a man, but to continue to build a free, just, and peaceful society here in Korea, throughout East Asia, and around the world.

Kim Dae Jung played a crucial role in the democratization of South Korea.  He was an inspiration to millions in Korea and beyond Korea.  He courageously raised his voice and told the truth about the succession of brutal dictators who oppressed the Korean people, clearly knowing the severe consequences for himself and his family.  He maintained his faith in democracy through years in house arrest, jail, and exile.  He survived attempts on his life by secret intelligence operatives and by a corrupted legal system.  He gamely participated in blatantly unfair elections as a series of political opportunists hijacked the political process and falsely proclaimed themselves the winners of the people’s mandate, undaunted in his conviction that someday the Korean people would be allowed to make their choices in truly free and fair elections.  He worked step-by-step to nurture a political movement that spread the message of democracy to millions of Koreans and eventually built the real democracy that today flourishes in South Korea.

When finally Kim Dae Jung’s faith in his people was redeemed and he was freely chosen their president, Kim Dae Jung did not seek vengeance on his enemies.  Even as the scope of the crimes of former despots was revealed, Kim Dae Jung sought reconciliation rather than revenge.  Even as political forces that had supported the old dictators continued to bitterly oppose his economic and political reform packages and his new dialog with the North, he worked to further democracy in South Korea and peace on the Korean peninsula.

Kim Dae Jung’s forward-looking sunshine policy has engaged North Korea in a process that has created new hope on both sides of the division that half a century of artificial separation and bitter enmity can come to an end and true reconciliation of the Korean family can begin.  This is perhaps his most profound dream—that not even a brutal civil war or 50 years of hostility between competing regimes can keep the Korean people apart.  Like Moses of the Bible, Kim Dae Jung may not be able to enter this promised land in his presidency or his lifetime, but he has led the Korean people through a long and bitter journey until the promised land is in sight.

While Kim Dae Jung’s presidential duties have kept his attention focused on the Korean peninsula, he has not forgotten the key role that the support of other democrats around the world played in the democratization of Korea.  Instead, he has forged links with others struggling to bring real democracy to their homelands throughout East Asia and around the world.  That is why leaders from so many nations are gathered here today to pay tribute to a truly great man, and all those who helped him rise to the heights he has attained.

The Nobel Peace Prize that gave international recognition to Kim Dae Jung’s achievements was not just for one man alone, but rather was a celebration of the broad-based movement for democracy in Korea and similar movements around the world.  For no one man can create democracy.  The greatest democratic leaders stand tall on the shoulders of all people who have worked so hard and so long and have endured so many hardships to realize their dream.

II. Achievements of Democratization of Korea

And the dream of a stable liberal democracy has been achieved here in South Korea.  The military regime is over and civilians now control the generals.  It did not come easily.  The generals clung desperately to power.  As the large armies of the North confronted the South, the dictators cynically cried that any internal opposition weakened the South against its mortal enemy.  The generals knowingly used the specter of a new North Korean invasion as an excuse to brand their opposition as communist sympathizers or even North Korean puppets.

Kim Dae Jung himself was labeled a communist and tried as a traitor to the country he loved so dearly.  Thousands of others were arrested as traitors and many of them tortured.  Thousands more were killed or wounded when they peacefully took to the streets to speak their minds.  Some, such as those murdered in the massacre of civilians at Kwangju, are still celebrated.  Others suffered or perished in obscurity, their contributions to freedom known only by their close relatives and friends.  Finally, literally millions raised their voices, publicly or privately.  So many withdrew their cooperation from the brutal dictatorship that the regime slowly crumbled.  Step-by-step, concessions were wrung from the corrupt rulers that institutionalized the people’s rights to speak their minds and choose their leaders in free and fair elections.

A key turning point came when General Chun Doo Hwan was forced to step down after only one term as president.  His predecessor Park Chung Hee had voided the original Korean constitutional provision limiting presidents to one term in office and had himself perennially returned to office in phony rigged elections until he was assassinated by a member of his own security forces.  Chun Doo Hwan, Park’s successor, appeared to be on the verge of making himself another “president for life.”  But mass protests forced him to step down and hold new elections by skillfully using the regime’s fear of being embarrassed as the attention of the world was focused on the Seoul Olympics.

However, having won a crucial struggle, democratic forces almost let their victory slip away.  In the first free and fair elections in South Korean history, the democratic opposition split and fielded two competing candidates, allowing another general to win power for another five years with much less than a majority of the vote.  However, finally in the early 90s the first freely elected civilian government came to power peacefully.

As a result of the sacrifices of so many heroes, known and unknown, South Koreans now enjoy free and fair elections that choose the most popular men and women as their leaders.  Korean democracy passed a particularly critical milestone when Kim Dae Jung, representing the historical opposition party, took power peacefully upon his selection by the Korean people.  This orderly transfer of power was a telling measure of how far Korea has come from the days of violent attacks on political dissidents.

Basic rights of free expression are now well established in Korea as the hearty and vocal opposition to the incumbent administration clearly demonstrates.  The daily flak that Kim Dae Jung receives from the opposition media must be nearly as severe a challenge to his democratic convictions as the oppression he endured when out of power.  But at least he can take consolation that he helped make possible the very democratic dissent that makes governing South Korea today so difficult.

A healthy and autonomous civil society is also beginning to flower in South Korea.  In the last legislative elections several prominent NGOs published targeted lists of leading politicians in all parties who were the most egregious abusers of their power, the most greedy sellers of political influence. Most of these men were spurned by the voters and driven from office.  The clean government and environmental movements in the U.S. surely wish they had as much influence on the political process as NGOs have manifested here in South Korea.

III. Remaining tasks in democratization of Korea

But rather than smugly congratulate themselves on their fine achievements, Koreans would be better served to continue to scrutinize their political system to identify the anti-democratic and non-democratic forces that took root during the long night of dictatorship and have yet to be weeded out of the garden of Korean democracy.  For democracy is not an end state that can be achieved once and for all.  Rather, democratization is a continuous struggle to overcome anti-democratic elements and improve society and the lives of the people.

As Korean democracy matures, it faces new tasks.  Korean democracy still needs to be broadened, deepened, and strengthened.  Democratization is an ever-ongoing process; it is never complete.  This is true everywhere, not just in Korea.  The U.S. and western Europe have served as models for Korea and other nations around the world of the benefits of democracy.  But those in the U.S. and western Europe who have grown arrogant and complacent and who see their societies as perfect models of completed democratization should look to the shortcomings of their own democratic processes.  Many of the problems in Korea that I will be citing are also serious issues in the so-called advanced and consolidated democracies of the West.  In every polity there are non-democratic forces active in the political arena who are continuously pushing to undermine the people’s democratic rights and capture government to serve their special interests.  Democratization is a process that is either moving forward, or it is sliding backward.

I will highlight three important areas where Korean democracy needs to be strengthened: 1) the political economy, 2) political culture, and 3) relations between the South and the North.  My colleague on this panel is charged with the primary responsibility of addressing issues of political economy, so I will be brief on that issue, hoping that my comments merely reinforce his.

Money politics is the bane of democracies everywhere, as anyone who follows campaign reform issues in the U.S. can see.  The corruption of money politics runs at least as deep in Korean society as in the West.  Many members of the legislature and executive branch built their careers in the pre-democratic period of Korean politics when corruption was basically how the system operated, and too many of these politicians have been too slow to clean up their act.  Even many in the new generation of political leaders, who should know better, have treated politics as a for-profit business.

Money politics is in fundamental opposition to real democracy because it violates the basic democratic principle of one person, one vote.  When money politics holds sway, the iron rule is, one dollar (or one won), one vote.

The conglomerates that dominate the Korean economy are probably the worst practitioners of purchasing the loyalties of politicians, if only because they have the most resources to spread around.  At a deeper structural level the Korean state is losing its autonomy from the conglomerates who continue to play such a crucial role in Korean economic development.  Reform of the relationship between the conglomerates and politicians is necessary, not only to deepen democracy but also to help Korea compete in the global marketplace.

A second area for further democratization is in the sphere of political culture.  In South Korea traditional Confucian values still are strong.  The relationship between Confucianism and democratic values is a difficult and complicated one that cannot be effectively treated in a short paper like this.  Overall, Confucianism as a philosophy is neither pro-democratic nor anti-democratic.  Yet Confucianism has some clearly anti-democratic elements; for example, its emphasis on defining relationships on a hierarchical rather than on an egalitarian basis.  But there are also elements of Confucianism that fit well with modern notions of democracy; for example, its humanistic moral code based not on quarrelsome concepts of God or strained notions of nature, but on the simple principle of human beings getting along with each other.  So Confucianism is not inevitably in conflict with democratic values, even though traditional Confucianism does require some revision to make it compatible with democratic ideas.  Fortunately, Confucianism, like any philosophical system, is an always evolving tradition that can be redefined in a way more consistent with democratic values.

I believe the deeper political cultural problem in South Korea stems from the history of occupation, civil war, and national division that have generated a culture mistrust and untruth that inhibit democratic social interaction.  The Korean people endured severe political repression for nearly a hundred years, first from the Japanese occupation, then from fiercely competitive repressive militaristic regimes locked in mortal enmity.  This was not an environment that encouraged open expression of ideas or faith in one’s fellow citizens.  When mixed with the hierarchical tendencies of Confucianism, this lack of trust and truthfulness has produced a particularly authoritarian value system that emphasizes unquestioning obedience to immediate superiors rather than the humane and ethical bonding of society that was the true end of Confucian philosophy.

As political society has opened up, this top-down version of Confucian values has led to a style of politics that puts all too much emphasis on blind loyalty to local and regional leaders rather than on principled contest of ideas.  Too often today in South Korean politics political leaders’ responses to policy ideas and initiatives are determined not by the quality of the policy idea, but by who proposed it.  If one personality supports a policy its is reflexively opposed by all his rivals regardless of the merits of the policy.

To say the least, this makes it difficult to formulate and implement any kind of just and reasonable public policy, especially when the policy problems themselves are complex and controversial.  Democracy thrives on contest and debate about ideas.  But democratic governments should at least have the chance to formulate and implement reasonable public policies without mindless, reflexive opposition based on personal enmity and regional rivalry rather than policy content.  In a political system driven by personal attacks and mudslinging, governments cannot generate the broad legitimacy to act in the public interest.

South Korean political leaders have had little trouble in the past decade mastering the politics of open opposition.  But the political leaders of South Korea have not yet really mastered the politics of principled discussion of ideas.  A truly democratic political culture is based on debate about ideas, not bitter political attacks motivated by envy and rivalry rather than the interests of the people.

The third remaining and probably most important set of tasks of democratization in Korea reaches beyond just the system in the South to the issue of relations between the North and South.  Reconciliation on the Korean peninsula and fostering of a more peaceful and secure Northeast Asian region are not ordinary issues of foreign policy.  Rather, they are tightly linked to the well being of all Koreans, North and South, and to the full flowering of Korean democracy.

Much has been written, especially since the end of the Cold War, about the relationship between peace among nations and democratization, and I cannot get into the complexities of that discussion here today.  But one thing is clear.  The regional and international environment has a crucial effect on the ability of nations to democratize.  Regional and international peace plainly make successful democratization more likely.

Some of the linkages between democratization and the regional security environment are relatively obvious.  Some are more subtle.  The most blatant anti-democratic remnant of the past military regimes in South Korea is the national security law that puts strict limits on the ability of South Koreans to speak and write openly about relations with the North.  Today, any South Korean who speaks favorably about the capability of the regime in the North to be a willing and able partner in a peace process risks being branded a North Korean sympathizer and faces a severe jail sentence.  This is not just a theoretical concern, as many student and religious leaders can testify.  The clamps the national security law places on deep and serious discussion about the nature of the regime in North Korea have proven to be a serious impediment to a clear understanding of what is going on in the North and building a clear conception of how the South can successfully negotiate with the North.  Yet paradoxically, due to the very real threat of another war on the Korean peninsula, abolition of the national security law is unlikely until relations with the North improve significantly.

The regional and international environment affects domestic democratization in another important way.  At the heart of democracy is self-determination of nations.  Yet because of the past civil war and the continuing regional threat from the North, South Korea has become a virtual client state of the U.S., unable to truly autonomously conduct its own foreign policy.  The spectacle of Korean government officials and business leaders running to the U.S. banks and the IMF to get their instructions on how to restructure the Korean economy made crystal clear the continuing dependence of South Korea on the U.S. and the western trading system.  The fact that the mere transition of presidential power in the U.S. could stall South Korea’s crucial initiatives for reconciliation on the Korean peninsula is another stark reminder that South Korea is in a kind of limbo state—not completely a U.S. dependency, but not yet truly a free people either.

IV. International Aid in Democratic Transitions

The anti-democratic effects of key aspects of U.S. foreign policy toward South Korea reveal important issues regarding the role of outside aid in any nation’s process of democratization.  The U.S. has preached democracy and human rights to the world for decades, even as it has not always practiced it at home or abroad.  The U.S. government and U.S.-based NGOs have been highly visible in providing direct aid to democratic forces and in monitoring democratic transitions.  Yet at the same time, elements of the U.S. government, particularly the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, and the U.S. trade representative, have been actively undermining the autonomy of democratic states and often intensifying local hostilities to the detriment of civil peace, political reconciliation, and democratic transition.  In the case of South Korea during the cold war, even as the U.S. preached democracy and human rights, for strategic reasons it backed a succession of brutal dictatorships.  These contradictions in U.S. democratization policy warn that the ultimate effect of outside intervention in any nation’s democratization depends a great deal on the form that aid takes.

The best kind of leadership in democratization is leadership by example.  A nation that practices what it preaches provides inspiration to all others.  The economic and political success of democracy in the U.S. and Western Europe is the primary reason other nations look to the West for guidance in democratization.  This demonstration effect is the primary reason for the recent wave of democratization in East Asia, not the direct intervention of the U.S. or the West in East Asian political systems.

Another positive form of leadership in democratization is help in creating a favorable international and regional environment for democracy to flourish.  International and civil peace are prerequisites for democratic transition.  Foreign powers meddling in local conflicts is a prescription for political regression.  During the cold war, the polarization of East Asia into two armed camps had much to do with the emergence of military dictatorships, especially in Korea.  Today, cooperation between the U.S. and China in building a peaceful regional security architecture would do more to facilitate democratization in East Asia than all the U.S. preaching on human rights.  On the other hand, hostile relations between the U.S. and China could re-polarize the region and lead to regression in the transitions toward democracy in many East Asian nations.

Direct aid in democratization also has a useful, if limited, role to play in critical situations, especially when it is multilateral rather than unilateral, and especially when it is provided by NGOs rather than through government to government channels.  Unilateral direct aid is inevitably tied to the donor country’s international agenda.  Unfortunately, donor countries’ genuine altruism gets subordinated to their economic and strategic interests.  To take only the most glaring example, during the Vietnam War, U.S. claims to be aiding the democratization of Vietnam were nothing more than cold war propaganda.

Multilateral aid can diffuse this self-interest, but not eliminate it completely.  Multilateral aid is often dominated by the West.  Broad-based Western aid avoids the problem of serving a single national interest, but aid coming overwhelmingly from the West cannot represent the view of the world community as a whole, as is often asserted.  Rather such multilateral aid often represents a wider Western self-interest, as can be seen in recent IMF liberalization programs.  Even aid from NGOs, which often stems from a more authentic altruism, can undermine local autonomy.  For example, militant, evangelical Christian groups in East Asia often preach democratization, but they have a much broader agenda that runs counter to local values and traditions.  The whole history of Christian missionaries in East Asia warns that there is a fine line between Christian values of individual and spiritual freedom and western cultural imperialism.

Struggling democratic forces in tough political neighborhoods at times need outside advice, technical assistance, and even in some cases peacekeeping forces.  But the broader the base of international support and the wider the range of international civil society that is brought to bear, the better for the long-run viability of democratization.

V.  Keys to Success in Further Democratization in Korea

To return to the case of democratization in Korea, what political developments can help Korea broaden and deepen its democracy, to overcome the non-democratic elements in its political economy, its political culture, and its international environment?  Economic and social groups underrepresented in today’s political system need greater voice.  Broad-based political movements need to build their support and strengthen their own organizations, but government also needs to listen more carefully to groups that represent broad segments of those historically excluded from political power.

One group that has been mobilized at the grass roots but largely excluded from serious participation in the Korean political life is organized labor.  The close cooperation of government and business that has been so characteristic of Korean government has generally worked to still the voice of the workers who have carried the heaviest burdens in building an advanced economy.  During the dictatorships the labor movement was deliberately repressed, branded as communist because it talked about the rights of workers.  Now it is tolerated but largely ignored in political circles.  Kim Dae Jung began his presidency by trying to incorporate labor into government-business councils.  However, opposition from business groups and the demands the IMF made during the financial crisis undermined any viable tripartite government-business-labor cooperation.  Yet the voice of labor is one of the deepest expressions of the people, representing not just those in organized trade unions, but the vast majority who work for wages or salary to earn their livings.  A political system that turns a deaf ear to such a voice of the people is not fully democratic.

Another political movement that speaks for a majority of citizens but that has been largely ignored in government circles is the women’s movement.  All elected politicians pay symbolic homage to the women’s vote, but women are grossly underrepresented in the National Assembly, the Cabinet, the bureaucracy, and the upper echelons of management in the private sector.  A comparison of the position of women in Korean society vs. that of women in the West, particularly in European nations where social democratic parties have been strong, shows that Korean democracy has a long way to go to truly represent the majority of its people.  Korean society as a whole needs to put more value of the work women do, not only in the marketplace, but also in the home.  Government can play a leading role by sending unambiguous signals that resonate throughout the country that women’s contributions are valued.

Giving voice to underrepresented social groups in policymaking is crucial to broadening and deepening Korean democratization, but more also needs to be done.  The personalization of politics and the petty rivalries that hold center stage in the Korean political drama need to be overcome with a greater emphasis on the importance of ideas in the political process.  This is crucial for maintaining ordinary people’s faith and participation in the system, and for the formulation of reasonable and just policies that serve the nation.  When the electoral process deteriorates into a contest of who can defame their opponents the most, ordinary citizens find it hard to treat politics seriously, and rightfully so.  The legitimacy of all politicians and the political system itself is undermined, squandering the special opportunity democracy provides to generate just and reasonable policies supported by the people.

The third key to success in further democratization in Korea is a favorable regional environment.  To some degree this variable is beyond the control of Korea alone.  Continued economic growth, political integration, and democratization of East Asia will create a climate more favorable for further democratization in Korea.  Peace and cooperation between the great powers in the region, particularly between potential rivals the U.S. and China, will also be fortuitous for Korea.  These factors are largely beyond the ability of Korea to control.

VI. Reconciliation and Democratization in the Two Koreas

But it is now in the power of Koreans to create a new political reality on the Korean peninsula.  Probably the most important key to the future of democracy in Korea is reconciliation between the South and North and the creation of a peace regime on the peninsula.

The North Korean people still suffer not only from economic hardship and rule by a totalitarian regime, but also from an increasingly anachronistic remnant of the cold war that divides Korean from Korean long after the global conflict that spawned that division has been over.  Like in the old Soviet Union or Eastern Europe in the early cold war, it seems absurd to talk about democratization in North Korea when just the smallest change is so bitterly resisted.

And in fact, it is premature to talk about democratization of the North.  The next step for North Korea is more simple—reform and liberalization as steps to reconciliation with the South.  And there are real limits on what reform can reasonably be expected in the short run.  Too rapid a reform of the North would could easily lead to a collapse of the regime in the North, as it did in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, unleashing a nightmare for both North and South.  The North Korean regime is walking a tightrope.  Lean too far toward Stalinism and fall into isolation, greater economic hardship, and irrelevance.  But lean too far toward liberalization and get swept into a vortex of long repressed popular resentment and intense international pressure for change.

Large numbers of refugees streaming south, civil disturbances in the North, further chaos and hunger in the North requiring vast relief efforts that would put relief workers in the middle of a potentially violent situation, even one last desperate push of the North Korean military into the south—all these are possible, some probable, if the regime in the North collapses.  The resistance of the North Korean regime to liberalization and reform stems partly from true belief in an outmoded ideology and a reflexive clinging to power, but their fears of mismanaged reform are not just paranoid fantasies.  And how would democratic institutions in the South bear up under a massive flow of refugees, controversial South Korean military intervention in civil disturbances in the North, huge economic costs of relief, and tearing of the social fabric in both North and South?

Kim Dae Jung and other South Korean leaders who have repeatedly rejected the German model of “absorption” are absolutely correct.  Those who impatiently complain that North Korea has not changed enough or that talks with the North be based on “strict reciprocity” are flirting with disaster.  Liberalization and reform in the North is necessary, but its pace must be modulated to avoid violence and chaos in the North that would inevitably work against democratization in both Koreas and the East Asian region as a whole.  Those who call for quickly wiping away the regime in the North or continued isolation of the North until it transforms itself completely do not see the real consequences not only for North Korea, not only for South Korea, but for the entire East Asian region.

Constructing a peace regime between the two Koreas is the most important remaining obstacle to democratization in the South and liberalization in the North.  The relationship between civil and international peace and successful democratization has been increasingly recognized by experts in the field.  In Europe, it was détente between East and West that made reform possible in the Eastern bloc.  Reform in the Eastern bloc made possible a European-wide peace regime that dismantled cold war structures.  Then, and only then, was broad democratization in Russia and Eastern Europe really possible.  In East Asia, it is no accident that the wave of democratization that began with “people power” in the Philippines and spread throughout the region also came as old cold war hostilities were evaporating.  In that new world, many of the military and dictatorial regimes that had seem useful or even necessary during the cold war were recognized as outmoded and were swept away.

But as if in a time warp in a science fiction story, the cold war still rages on the Korean peninsula.  The division and militarization of the Korean peninsula is the most important obstacle to further progress in democratization of both Koreas.  A peace regime makes broad liberalization and reform in the North possible.The last major impediment to full liberalization and greater social democracy in the South remains the national security law and the residual power held by the military and intelligence agencies because of the threat from the North.  The visionary Kim Dae Jung has devoted much of his time in power to bringing about reconciliation of former enemies.  It will take similar visionaries with the same kind of courage and unswerving determination to finish the task of making peace on the Korean peninsula and end forever the artificial separation of a people.  Greater democracy and a peaceful future could the bloom like spring flowers after a long, long winter.





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