The Rough Road to Democracy

Saturday, October 30, 1999

Among the dozens of new democracies born during the so-called third wave of global democratization that began in the mid-1970s, the Republic of Korea is one of the most politically influential and analytically interesting. With the eleventh-largest economy in the world, Korea became in 1987 the most powerful democracy in East Asia after Japan. With a peaceful democratic transition driven by a combination of a civil society, international pressure, and elite negotiation, followed by almost a decade of relative political stability and continued buoyant economic growth, the country has often been viewed in the West as a model East Asian economy and democracy.

During 1997, however, the Korean model was shaken to its foundations. The popularity of President Kim Young Sam, the first civilian head of government in three decades who had entered as a political reformer with wide public support, collapsed in a series of corruption scandals. Then, in the last two months of 1997, Korea was struck by its worst economic crisis in almost half a century. In November, Korea became a symbol of the Asian financial crisis that shook markets from Hong Kong to Wall Street. With the largest rescue package ever from the International Monetary Fund—$57 billion—the country was quickly transformed from an economic powerhouse into a ward of the international financial community.

Yet economic crisis helped pave the way for a political breakthrough. On December 18, 1997, Korea became the first third-wave democracy in East Asia to peacefully transfer power to an opposition party. In that election, the Korean people refused to support the party of a conservative establishment that had ruled their country for decades in collusion with military dictators and massive business conglomerates (chaebols). Enraged by a financial crisis that subjected their country to unprecedented humiliation and devastating economic misery and pain, Koreans elected as their president the country’s most determined opposition figure, Kim Dae Jung—a man who had campaigned for the presidency and fallen short three times and who was such an implacable foe of the military that he was nearly put to death by the Chun Doo Hwan regime following the May 1980 Kwangju rebellion.

The country’s cleanest and most peaceful presidential election in its history took Korea across a visible threshold of democratic maturity. Just five years previously, when Kim Dae Jung contested for the presidency, army generals had openly warned that they would stage a coup rather than allow Kim to become president. This time there was no such talk. Previously, enormous sums of money were used by the ruling party in presidential races to bribe voters. This time, the ruling party distanced itself from such dirty money politics.

Kim Dae Jung’s victory ranks in political significance with the election of such other courageous democratic dissidents as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Poland’s Lech Walesa. Undoubtedly Kim’s electoral victory represents a major turning point in Korea’s journey toward a fully consolidated democracy. It also marks the transition to a new era of democracy in East Asia. Asian democracy has often been equated largely with rule by a dominant, single party that brooked limited opposition. Even if one does not doubt the willingness of a long-dominant party to surrender power if it loses an election, the actual moment represents a qualitative change in the character and vibrancy of democracy. In Korea, however, this remarkable change has coincided with (and was probably made possible by) a profound economic crisis. That crisis has revealed the dark side of the Korean model of democracy and prompted serious debates over whether political democracy can coexist with crony capitalism for any extended period of time.

On his election, Kim Dae Jung quickly moved to support financial reform bills mandated by the IMF loan deal. He demanded the fundamental restructuring of governmental agencies and major conglomerates, which control over three-quarters of Korea’s gross domestic product. At the same time, he began to tame the most powerful labor unions in Asia, which had pushed wages up fivefold in the previous decade, seriously undermining the “miracle” of Korea’s export-led growth. In short, Kim Dae Jung’s endeavors to restructure crony capitalism and the old way of running politics signaled true change and began to dispel the view that democratically elected governments in Korea could not implement fundamental economic reforms.

In fact, the first decade of democratic rule in Korea produced a large number of political and economic reforms reshaping the institutions and procedures of military-authoritarian rule into those of representative democracy. Laws were passed to promote free and fair electoral competition at all government levels. Three free and competitive presidential elections were conducted, the third of which produced a historic rotation of power. Three rounds of parliamentary elections also enabled the people to choose their representatives to the National Assembly. In local communities, popularly elected governors and legislators have taken the place of appointees of the central government.

Korea thus has fully restored civilian rule by extricating the military from power. Also Korea has fully established the other minimal architecture of procedural democracy—a political regime practicing free and fair elections, universal adult suffrage, multiparty competition, civil liberties, and a free press. It is also an increasingly liberal democracy, one of only six countries in Asia that is rated “free” by Freedom House.


In Korea today, there is general agreement that electoral politics has become the only possible game in town. The successful establishment of electoral democracy, however, cannot be equated with the consolidation of Korean democracy. To become consolidated, democracy must achieve deep, broad, and lasting legitimacy at three levels: political elites, politically significant parties and organizations, and the mass public. At each level, actors must manifest both a normative commitment to democracy as the best form of government (or at least better than any imaginable alternative) and a behavioral commitment to comply with the specific rules and procedures of the constitutional system. Often this requires (or may be facilitated by) some redistribution of political and socioeconomic resources, but at bottom democratic consolidation involves political leadership and institution building.

In new democracies, like the one in Korea, where in the past the military ruled for decades, holding competitive elections and reestablishing representative institutions alone cannot bring about significant changes in the redistribution of political power and other valued resources. Nor can the formal (electoral) institutions of democracy be expected to ensure adequate protection for human rights or the political incorporation of previously marginalized groups.

This is why the constitutional order is profoundly important to the quality and stability of democracy and thus why consolidation requires both appropriate institutional designs and an independent judiciary capable of enforcing the constitution and the rule of law. All these dynamics in turn heavily affect how the mass public views democracy and whether it will become deeply and intrinsically committed to its legitimacy. Democratic consolidation will advance to the extent that the political institutions of democracy are deepened and improved to become more open, responsive, accountable, and respectful of the law and to the extent that democracy is seen by the mass public to be delivering the political goods it promises: freedom, justice, transparency, participation, and a predictable, stable, constitutional order.

The support of ordinary Koreans for democracy tends to remain superficial, fragmented, and mixed with authoritarian habits. Korea is not likely to become a fully democratic nation in a single generation.


The transition from authoritarian military rule, holding free and fair elections, and installing a new electoral democracy encompass well-defined, single tasks. In sharp contrast, the consolidation phase is confronted with a multitude of diverse and pressing institutional and policy challenges: corruption, the crimes of the authoritarian past, lawlessness, feeble judicial systems, ineffectual bureaucratic institutions, a fragmented political party system, deep-seated regional or ethnic divisions, growing social inequality, and now a profound economic crisis.

The conditions that favor democratic transition do not necessarily promote democratic consolidation. Following are those conditions that will play the most important role in the deepening and consolidation of Korean democracy.

  1. ACCOMMODATION AMONG POLITICAL ELITES. Political elites in new democracies hold strategic positions in key government and nongovernmental organizations and can shape the trajectory and pace of democratic consolidation more powerfully than the masses. Yet elite groups differ significantly in the extent to which they are united on the worth of the democratic institutions they have established and on the need to abide by the rules of the political game. Democratic consolidation is advanced when all politically significant elites become consensually unified around the basic procedures and norms by which politics will be played. Such a consensually unified elite may be produced rapidly by key pacts or agreements, or it may emerge through a more incremental, transformative process. No such broad and definitive elite settlement has occurred in Korea. Rather, elite consensual unity has emerged incrementally in Korea. In fact, judging by the harshness and unpredictability with which politics are waged and power is exercised in Korea, and the methods that are used to forge alliances and win support, it would be difficult to argue that Korea’s political elite is as yet fully consensually unified.
  2. POPULAR COMMITMENT TO DEMOCRACY. If democratic consolidation is at bottom a process of legitimation, then it must involve some changes in political culture. The practice of democracy after the transition from an authoritarian regime involves the participation of a multitude of new and inexperienced political actors. Citizens must become sufficiently convinced of the superiority of democracy over any alternative form of government that they are willing to defend it and continue to support it even through times of hardship and crisis.

    The values and judgments of the Korean public, while strongly sympathetic to democracy in some respects, are as yet too conflicted, ambiguous, and unstable to signal the consolidation of democracy. Survey data show that Koreans’ support for democracy tends to remain superficial, fragmented, and mixed with authoritarian habits. Based on these findings, Korea is not likely to form a truly democratic nation in a single generation.

    However, survey data also consistently show that the Korean people believe their current political system to be significantly more democratic than the one in which they lived ten years ago. Moreover, Koreans are optimistic about democracy. Although they see their system as far from fully democratic, they expect it to become appreciably more democratic in the next decade. At the same time, the degree to which favorable perceptions of democracy are linked to positive perceptions of national economic conditions underscores the importance for democratic consolidation in Korea of restoring the economy to good health.

  3. ENGAGEMENT IN CIVIC LIFE. A growing body of theory and evidence suggests that a vigorous civil society is instrumental, if not vital, to the consolidation of new democracies. A dense network of civil society organizations, movements, and networks can perform many functions for the consolidation of democracy. Citizen associations independent of the state serve as public laboratories in which citizens can learn the art of self-rule. They not only prevent the state from dominating the rest of society, and check the potential abuse of power, but also facilitate a broader distribution of public benefits. Certainly they provide additional channels, beyond political parties, through which citizens articulate their needs and interests to candidates for office and elected representatives, and with which they hold public officials accountable. Civil society organizations can foster social trust and cooperation and can generate powerful momentum for institutional reforms to remove authoritarian enclaves, expand citizen rights, tame corrupt practices, widen the political arena, and so deepen the quality of democracy. In Korea, civil society organizations have clearly made important contributions to both the transition and now the improvement and consolidation of democracy. But they have not as yet evolved the depth of organization or elicited the breadth of sustained popular involvement that could enable them to realize their full potential. In particular, civil society organizations are only now beginning to coalesce around the broad and demanding challenge of developing a mass political culture of democracy through various civic education initiatives.
  4. CHOICE OF POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS. A crucial issue for democratic consolidation in Korea is whether the constitutional framework commands the consensual support and loyalty of both elites and the mass public. The current constitution combines in the presidency considerable powers with a direct mandate from the electorate. This system of a relatively strong presidential democracy was derived from the traditions of authoritarian rule and culture with little concern for the harsh realities of Korea’s highly fragmented political parties, based on personal and regional ties.

    The separation of the presidency and the National Assembly and the resultant legislative stalemates—known in Korea as yeoso yadae (small government party, large opposition party)—have often frustrated both politicians and citizens. Democratic consolidation would certainly be advanced by (if not absolutely dependent on) institutional reform.

    Many theorists argue for the general superiority of parliamentary democracy on both logical and empirical grounds. The mutual dependence of executive and legislature in such a system creates a series of incentives and decision rules that facilitate the minimization of legislative impasses, the removal of inefficient government, and the expansion of mass participation in the political process. A strong case could be made that parliamentary democracy would fit better the political circumstances and vulnerabilities of Korea today, even if it represented a dramatic change in the country’s political and institutional culture. In any case, this huge institutional issue will have to be resolved one way or another before democracy can be consolidated.

  5. ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE. Korea’s quest for democratic stability is greatly advantaged by its relative wealth. Numerous studies find a strong relationship between economic development and democracy, particularly between development and the likelihood that democracy will endure. In fact, one study has found that, between 1950 and 1990, no democracy ever broke down with a level of per capita income anywhere near that of Korea’s today.

    Still, even in a rich country (and Korea is not quite that), prolonged economic crisis and stagnation can breed democratic disaffection, if not breakdown. Certainly progress toward democratic consolidation threatens to be stalled, if not reversed, unless Korea’s democratic system shows that it is capable of finding solutions to the systemic economic crisis it entered in November 1997 in ways that are perceived to share the pain and promote a fair distribution of opportunities and rewards. In this regard, Korea faces a distinctive challenge, for its economic “miracle” was forged under a pair of military authoritarian regimes, and the public continues to look back on the first of those rulers with considerable nostalgia. It is dangerous to assume that it is impossible for democracy to break down in a country as economically developed as Korea.

    We believe that Korea will find solutions to its economic crisis, and indeed in its first year in office the Kim Dae Jung administration began to implement the kind of far-reaching reforms of the chaebols and financial institutions that are necessary to rekindle economic investment and growth and avoid a new financial meltdown. But such economic reforms must continue and go further if Korea is to find a favorable economic and social context for consolidating its democratic institutions.


Korea has been one of the more vigorous members in the family of third-wave democracies. Several waves of institutional and legal reforms have been carried out in order to establish the necessary institutions and procedures of representative democracy and to rectify the wrongs of the authoritarian past. Although not all these reforms have been equally successful and much remains to be done, Korea has firmly institutionalized the two most important principles of procedural democracy: free and fair electoral competition and civilian supremacy over the military. For Korea and for East Asia, the presidential election victory in 1997 of a lifelong democratic dissident and opposition leader who was almost put to death by the military and his assumption of office without incident represent a particular milestone on the path to democratic maturity.

Yet for all the reforms it has pursued and adopted during its first decade of democracy, Korea remains far from a consolidated, liberal democracy. The mass public is committed to the ideals of democracy but shows some growing ambivalence about whether democracy is the best system for Korea in this troubled time. Elites remain more divided than united, even over the basic structure of democratic governance, including the preferred form of government for the country. Although the ruling coalition is committed to switching to a parliamentary system by 2001, the leadership of the opposition opposes the change in the belief that continuing threat from the communist North requires a strong president.

At the level of elite behavior, governmental and nongovernmental forces alike often appear unwilling to abide by all the rules (written and unwritten) of the democratic game, including those of accountability and transparency. As revealed in a series of major scandals involving the two democratically elected former presidents, Roh Tae Woo and Kim Young Sam, the formal norms of accountability and constitutionalism remain overpowered by the informal norms of clientelism, cronyism, and personalism. Both elected officials and their representative institutions are yet to be dissociated from the various legacies of the authoritarian past.

Korea remains far from a fully liberal state even after a decade of democratic rule, although it is one of the most pluralistic nations in Asia. Citizens in the South, for example, are still not free to visit, without governmental permission, North Korea’s home page on the Internet, not to mention owning its books and magazines. Even those who try to listen to North Korean radio broadcasts continue to be imprisoned under the National Security Law that was promulgated in 1948. According to Minkahyup, a human rights group in Korea, there were 478 political prisoners in Korean jails when Kim Dae Jung took office. This number is not known to have been reduced to any significant degree. Under the democratic Sixth Republic, as in the authoritarian past, tolerance of communism remains “an unaffordable luxury” among ordinary citizens, despite their president’s “sunshine” policy toward North Korea.

What can and should be done to deepen, liberalize, and consolidate democracy in Korea? Along with responding to the economic crisis, this is the most serious challenge the Kim Dae Jung government now faces. If Korea does not switch to a parliamentary system, one simple but effective reform of presidentialism would be to amend the election laws to provide for simultaneous election of the president and the National Assembly, and perhaps of all local and provincial offices as well. Simultaneous elections would establish a democratic system of mutual dependence among various representative institutions and minimize the legislative impasses resulting from the frequent occurrence of yeoso yadae. It would also strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral and legislative processes.

The Kim government should continue its effort to restructure the business conglomerates that have served as pillars of crony capitalism and have stifled the invigoration of other civil society organizations. In the first year of his presidency, the vigor with which Kim Dae Jung pursued a fundamental restructuring of the chaebols represented a real source of hope for Korea’s economic and political future. However, these efforts are not sufficient in scope. The chaebols need to develop more diversified and transparent ownership structures, and the national economy also needs both a more flexible labor market and a more vigorously competitive and open financial system.

Although Korea’s judiciary is generally considered independent, reform of the larger system of justice should explore how the power of prosecution could be insulated from partisan political interference and manipulation. The current government should also revise the age-old National Security Law that has been a political and legal instrument for silencing opposition against the government and allow Koreans to exercise their political rights and civil liberties to a greater extent.

The consolidation of democracy in Korea will no doubt be advanced by generational change as well. In all likelihood, Kim Dae Jung will be the last president of the political generation that led the struggles for and against Korea’s developmental authoritarian state. With the emergence of a new generation of political party leaders, there is the chance that the agenda for political and economic reform will gather momentum. In this respect, ironically, Kim Dae Jung—once derided as a dangerous leftist—may now be laying the foundation for deeper and more sustainable reform by opening Korea more fully to the economic and social forces of globalization. His ambitious agenda for economic, political, and social reform coincides with and is reinforced by a renewed flourishing of Korean civil society. If, through a process of dialogue and negotiation with business and labor, Kim Dae Jung can succeed in restructuring and opening up the economy, while buffering the pain for the roughly two million Koreans who will have to cope with unemployment during this wrenching transition, he will not only rekindle economic growth. He will alter the political and economic culture of Korea in ways that will benefit the consolidation of its maturing but still awkward democracy.