Indepent Working Module, Article: South Korean democracy

The Democratic State Engulfing Civil Society: The Ironies of Korean Democracy

The author analyses the current situation of civil society of R.O.K in his article. He finds previous studies lacking description of post-1987 situation and definitions the attributes of civil society in the R.O.K, ergo the author finds it necessary to observe the current situation and make an analysis. The author notifies that democracy movement led by students and labour disintegrated; middle class separated from the group of lower income. Due to democratisation, mass movements lost their significance when young intellectuals joined the regime and gained elite status, indirectly indicating that regime used structural bribery to the intellectuals. According to author, the labour movement has progressively weakened due to the Kim Dae-jung administration made pact which allows employers to expel workers. The turning point can be considered to be in connection with 1997 financial crisis, after which government “adopted (…) antagonistic position towards the labour movement”.

Even though chaebols, the industrial conglomerates had no negative role in transition process, the author remarks that their role has changed to conservative. During the tyrannical regimes the elite had established their position due the growth-based popularity of the regime of Park Chung-hee, and currently powerful “elite pressure groups” have influence concerning economic policy; Park legitimised his reign with massive economic growth. In contrast, the author points out that civil society is new concept in R.O.K: associations e.g. Federation of Korean Teachers were under government control, a situation originally created by American Military Government after WWII and reinforced during the reign of Park Chung-hee, a Neo-Confucian dictator, nominally allowing rights but de facto strictly ruled. Organisations created after the democratisation couldn’t replace the formerly state-sponsored interest associations. The author states that the discouraging and repressing legacy of pre-democratic era is the main factor for inability of creating secondary associations to promote their interests. The author mentions urban development planning led by local authorities and executed by chaebols, local entrepreneurs unable to protest planning that is jeopardising their future.

 The lack of transparency about activities of chaebols, including “collusion” with authorities, people remain ignorant. Since the chaebols have activities in several industrial branches, the author stresses that power of single chaebol resembles “private interest government”.  Chaebols also have influence on media and academic field: both mass media and alternative channels rely on their “financial resources”, as well are the universities, the author mentions that economic policy decisions of Roh Moo-hyun government were planned in Samsung’s economic institute. The ownership of academic institutions indicates the deep-rooted power of chaebols, not only in science and arts but also their leverage in parliamentary area. State remains strong in R.O.K, and the judicial system enforces the status quo: the author states that according to statistics, judges enlisted are graduates from elite law schools and thus being generally offspring of elite, thus being “predominantly conservative” and protecting their own benefits. The author adopts the view that this fact combined with their compromised autonomy due the influence of chaebols and “economic development on the basis of the developmental ideology” also with “national security imperative” enforces the inherited attitudes from era of Park Chung-hee: national stability for economic growth is the actual purpose instead of unbiased judicial system and democracy. The actions of presidents the author explains with a political pressure. Tenure is limited to one five-year term, after which the president must build ones career based on achievements of reign, leading to massive projects including urban development and infrastructure improvements. The author states that there is also psychological factor behind: the president frequently compares oneself with predecessors and is willing to leave as progressive legacy as possible. This has led to influence on the local field: mayors and governors are also “motivated to embark (…) projects”. This development prevents the funds being devoted to social welfare or development of smaller enterprises. The urge for strong presidential power is due to underdeveloped and weakly institutionalised political parties, thus candidates relying on “support of certain interest groups and (…) networks”.

The author concludes that even if transition from dictatorship to democracy was remarkably peaceful, the old structures prevail: presidents after 1987 have taken advantage of the legacy of strong state and sustaining the conservative ideology acting with short sighted decisions to build monuments for their era, civil society was devoured to the elite whilst position of labour remains relatively weak and alienated from political field, the “weakness of the party system also reflects (…) alliance between the strong state and giant conglomerates that (…) prevent civil society becoming more autonomous from the state”. The author states that these weaknesses prevent R.O.K developing democracy “in a more mature form”.

The author Jang Jip Choi is emeritus professor of political sciences in Stanford University and has published several books and articles concerning democratisation of R.O.K and the situation after 1987, and the article binds seamlessly together the different factors whilst demonstrating the connections between the state and chaebols, making the article credible and academically valuable. Unlike “Development of Democratization”, this article looks at the development on larger scale and includes various factors and also explains about their backgrounds and function in the big picture.


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