SOUTH KOREA’S 2017 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION AND FOREIGN THREATS: IS DEMOCRACY IN DANGER? BY HANNAH KIM @ UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES
South Korea has experienced subjugation at the hands of various authoritarian governments since its formal establishment in 1948. Throughout South Korea’s history, many attempts to form a democratic government have been riddled with democratic backsliding and executive coups. Since the establishment of the Sixth Republic in 1987, South Korea has slowly and stably transitioned into a liberal democracy. Unfortunately due to recent complex international relations brought on by North Korea’s aggressive nuclear missile program, scandal and corruption in South Korea’s government officials, and the controversial election of a third-party president to office, many fear that South Korea’s democracy is currently showing signs of decline.
Despite the rise of a third-party, anti-establishment president, I do not believe that South Korea’s democracy is declining. I will explore the election of President Moon Jae-In in the context of the recent public backlash against the corrupt presidency of former President Park Guen-Hye in order to show that these political developments actually reveal that democracy is thriving in South Korea.
South Korea’s most recent presidential election cycle raised concerns that the newly elected president, Moon Jae-In, is a populist. Some people are concerned that President Moon’s rise to power is consistent with the indicators of a populist figure’s ascent to office. According to Pippa Norris, a political scientist, a populist leader “challenges the legitimacy of the establishment” (Norris). Moon certainly fits this description. For the past decade, South Korea’s presidents have been extreme conservatives who support democracy and take hard-line stances against communication and unification with North Korea. When Moon, a third-party, liberal leader, rises to power, it shows his constituency’s dissatisfaction with the establishment.
Not only are conservative South Korean’s concerned that Moon is a populist leader, they are particularly concerned that he has authoritarian leanings. These concerns arise primarily from conservative South Koreans who are fearful of Moon Jae-In’s liberal policies that heavily emphasize openness and discussion with North Korea. These skeptical citizens view President Moon’s emphasis upon communication with North Korea as a sign of approval of authoritarian governments. In Pippa Norris’ analysis of backsliding democracy, she cites the combination of populist-authoritarian leaders and threats of terrorism as one of the main causes of democratic decline. North Korea’s recent emphasis upon development of nuclear missiles, and threats of nuclear warfare has affected South Korea greatly. Because President Moon holds many anti-establishment views and was elected during the heat of North Korea’s threats to terrorize South Korea with nuclear warfare, many believe that Moon’s rise to power is indicative of his populist identity and could therefore harm South Korea’s democracy.
Though President Moon is anti-establishment, his election to the presidency actually indicates that South Korea’s democracy is working well within the parameters of democracy as outlined by Pippa Norris. According to Norris there are three main characteristics of a consolidated democracy, “Culturally, the overwhelming majority of people believe that democracy is the best form of government …Constitutionally, all the major actors and organs of the state reflect democratic norms and practices…. [and] Behaviorally, no significant groups actively seek to overthrow the regime or secede from the state” (Norris). The political developments surrounding the removal of President Park and the election of President Moon fall within Norris’ standards for a consolidated democracy.
President Moon’s election revealed that South Korean culture supports democracy and its institutions. During the 2017 election, non-violent protests occurred frequently. Some people who were “pro-Park” argued that despite her corrupt practices President Park represented good international policies that supported South Korea’s autonomy and democracy. Other citizens were furious that Park had taken bribes and abused her power. Though protesters vehemently rallied for their causes, the protests were civil and unimpeded by the government. In addition to this, the 2017 South Korean presidential election was marked by extremely high voter turnout. The 2017 election cycle revealed that the citizens of South Korea support democratic ideals such as political discourse and equal representation by participating in the fundamental democratic institutions of voting and exercising their right to free speech.
Furthermore, the removal of President Park from office showed that South Korea’s institutions reflect the norms and practices of a working democracy that Norris identifies as the second prong of a consolidated democracy. President Park was impeached by South Korea’s constitutional court which is comprised of nine Justices. Three of the Justices are chosen by the president herself with the consent of the National Assembly, three others are chosen by the Chief Justice, and three are voted in by the National Assembly. This represents horizontal accountability, a concept outlined by Ellen Lust, a political scientist. Horizontal accountability is the “classic notion of checks and balances” (Lust). Constitutionally, South Korea’s democracy worked as it should to remove a corrupt leader that attempted to abuse her power. This institutional removal of Park from the presidency also reflected the desire of the people, which coincides directly with the ideals of a liberal democracy.
At first glance, President Moon seems to satisfy some of the characteristics laid out in Norris’ descriptions of an authoritarian leader. Though President Moon is considered an anti-establishment candidate who won primarily because of South Korean citizens’ disapproval with the established conservative rule over the government, he is not a populist-authoritarian leader. According to Norris, populist leaders are primarily recognizable by their us-versus-them rhetoric (Norris). Populist leaders are particularly eager to foment xenophobic and exclusive-nationalist sentiments in order to gain support for their cause. President Moon’s international policy is anything but exclusive. His main goal is to promote civil conversation and negotiation with Kim Jong-un, the infamous, authoritarian leader of North Korea. Many of his critics actually attack him for his promotion of unity between the two countries. Moon does not qualify as a populist leader. Additionally, President Moon has not taken any adverse actions against democratic practices such as free speech and voting laws. His presidency has been characterized by the desire to promote peace and unity internationally.
Though vigilance in regards to protecting democracy is of the utmost importance, the concerns regarding the most recent South Korean presidential election cycle are not substantiated by proof of a declining democracy. As of now, South Korea’s cultural and institutional practices are fortunately not indicative of democratic deconsolidation.
Lust, Ellen, and David Waldner. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018.
Norris, Pippa. “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017.
Sang-hun, Choe. “South Korea Removes President Park Geun-Hye.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2017.
“South Korea Country Profile.” BBC News, BBC, 23 Jan. 2018.
“South Korea President Moon’s Approval Rating Drops on Olympics Furor.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 19 Jan. 2018.
George, Steve, et al. “Kim Jong Un Invites South Korean President Moon to Pyongyang.”CNN, Cable News Network, 11 Feb. 2018.
Kim, Youngmi, editor. Korea’s Quest for Economic Democratization: Globalization, Polarization and Contention. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Draudt, Darcie. “The Future of South Korean Democracy.” The Diplomat, The Diplomat, 14 Mar. 2017.
Boykoff, Pamela, and James Griffiths. “South Korea Election: Moon Jae-in Declared Winner.”CNN, Cable News Network, 10 May 2017.
*Photo by Jung Yeon-Je | Pool | Reuters
SE BIN KIM
I thought this was an interesting read and I definitely do agree with your opinion that Korea’s current cultural and institutional practices are not indicative of democractic decline. However, I think it may be an interesting thought to bring up how Korea was on a path of democractic decline with the last presidency under President Park Geunhye. Korea had its authoritarian roots under military dictator Park Chunghee who made institutional changes that permitted coercion and suppression of any political competition. Under Park Geunghye, Korea seemed to be leading to its democractic decline starting with the blatant corruption involving Samsung, Lotte, and other Korean conglomerates, Besides the implications of corruption between state and private interests, there were rarely any checks on presidential power. During her time in office, the Park administration often heavily suppressed media that spoke critically of her government and even blacklisting thousands of artists that held too critical views. If one looked at the lack of judicial constraints on the executive and forceably declining civil society participation, one can conclude Korea had been experiencing a downward trend in democratic ways. However, with the impeachment of president Park GeunHye, Korea had thankfully moved forward and away from the impending democractic erosion.
I agree with all the arguments that you have posted in your op-ed. South Korea remains as a positive case of a democracy that was once challenged by authoritarian backlashes and crisis-driven regimes such as those of Roh Moo-hyun and Park Geun-hye. Given its status today, South Korea’s political elites are keen in maintaining that whoever replaces an impeached president must have democratic legitimacy, as shown in Moon Jae-in’s successful presidential bid. There appears to be political learning on the part of the country’s political elites as to how democracy should be done. Park Geun-hye’s successful impeachment shows how a system of checks and balance works, as well as the purpose of separation of powers. At the level of the civil society, both Freedom House and the Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index (BTI) have consistently reported since 2007 that there have been no anti-democracy sentiments from the public. This implies that democratic norms in South Korea have been strong, and has not been eroded despite the political scandal in 2016. In fact, borrowing the concept from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the strength of South Korea’s democratic institutions lies in the strength of their adherence to democratic norms. As such, the norms are influenced by the avoidance of endangering the economy’s current status as well as with dealing with the threat from the North. Overall, democracy remains as the only game in town for South Korea.
The election of a third party candidate to the highest office in a historically two-party system is often heralded as the utmost achievement of a modern democracy. Breaking out of the gridlock of a two-party system often provides citizens more opportunity for representation. Many large democracies such as the U.S. have not abandoned a two party system in the recent past; however, in the case of South Korea, the election of a third-party candidate is being touted as a harbinger of democratic erosion. This is coming directly off of an administration that engaged in documented corruption and abuse of power, activities that would traditionally be labeled worse indicators of democratic erosion than an anti-establishment executive. Although this debate is further polarizing, it seems to have been the result of polarization. In this case, polarization might not be the enemy of democracy but instead the path to an escape from the gridlock of two-party systems.