South Korea’s Long road to democracy (1953–2009)

South Korea’s Long road to democracy (1953–2009)

Looking at the two Koreas today, outsiders see a simple moral:Capitalism works, communism does not. The people of South Korea enjoy both democracy and prosperity; the people of North Korea are poor and live in a police state. For the first three decades following the Korean War, this moral would have seemed less obvious.

For much of that time, and especially the first two decades, a case could have been made that North Korea was the better off country. Though poorer, its people enjoyed greater personal security and a fairer distribution of goods. If they depended on Soviet aid, they depended on it less than South Korea depended on American aid. Restrictions on personal and political freedom were greater in North Korea than in South Korea, but in both countries the outward forms of democracy were hollow.

For nearly half a century South Korea was ruled by a series of strong-men: Syngman Rhee (president 1948–60), Park Chung Hee (1917–79, president 1961–79), and Chun Doo Hwan (b. 1931, president 1980–88). Their rule was punctuated by brief periods of democratic reform, when opposition leaders won electoral victories, the Korean people flowed into the streets to demand real democracy, or when the strongmen themselves promised democratic reform and it seemed that the end of autocratic rule had come at last. Time and again this hope was thwarted. By the 1990s South Korea’s “economic miracle”—really achieved over the course of a century at an incredibly high human cost—was well advanced, but its democratic miracle was still new.

In the modern world, democracy enjoys such international prestige that most tyrannical governments clothe themselves in its trappings. They hold elections and permit limited amounts of free speech, while the police arrests dangerous political opponents and the army stands by to declare a national emergency and restore order whenever real change threatens to occur.

It is useful to bear this pattern in mind when examining the evolution of the state and the constitution of South Korea under Syngman Rhee and his successors. The United States, which guaranteed South Korea’s security and supported it with billions of dollars of foreign aid—sometimes amounting to more than half of its national budget and two-thirds of its defense expenditures—wanted South Korea to be a democracy, and so did the majority of the South Korean people. For this reason, South Korea’s despots could not rule simply as military dictators.

Instead, with the help of special powers and in the name of combating communist subversion and with the rewards they could dole out to key supporters, they manipulated an outwardly democratic system to stifle opposition and retain power. Even so, the hypocritical concessions Korea’s strongmen made toward democracy were not without effect. They were the openings that allowed opposition to survive and through which the majority was ultimately able to express its will.