Difficult Coming of Age for an Asian Democracy


Ten years ago this month, South Korea was roiling with popular upheaval. Demonstrators flooded the streets, forcing a military dictatorship to free political prisoners, allow direct presidential elections, and open the road for real democracy.

And America was nudging its cold-war ally to become a model of freedom in the Far East.

Now, a decade later, South Korea has come a long way to become one of Asia's best democracies. The press is basically free, and individuals can rely on the rule of law more than ever. And 1992 saw the most fair elections yet. Kim Young Sam, the first civilian president in three decades and an ex-dissident, undertook bold anticorruption measures. The military withdrew from politics.

Although political power remains highly centralized, and politics is more about personal and regional alliances than policy, individual Koreans are freer than ever. Corrupt ties between government and business angers many, but each scandal heralds change. A stodgy bureaucracy remains in place, and intimidating riot police are deployed around Seoul regularly. Still, South Korea hardly has the oppressive air of yesteryear.

Trial of past presidents

When former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, two ex-generals, were handed sentences last August for corruption and involvement in a 1980 massacre at Kwangju, the military didn't make a peep.

Trying the former leaders so soon after they left office was a major step toward an independent judiciary.

But a young democracy's cleanup of its despotic past has now created a climate to sweep out many other political cobwebs.

South Korea could soon effectively prosecute a standing president. In the past week, pressure has mounted on President Kim to disclose the sources of his campaign fund. The scandal could force his resignation.

His son is expected to be arrested soon on bribery charges linked to influence peddling and meddling in state affairs. Kim is seen as a lame-duck leader until he leaves office after presidential elections in December.

A freer press

Saying or printing the wrong thing could once get people tortured. But today, the relationship between government and the press has been somewhat reversed, with the former hoping to please the latter. One major newspaper, the Hankyoreh, was founded by journalists once jailed by the military dictatorship.

Officials at the Blue House (the South Korean White House) and government ministries still telephone editors to complain about coverage. But blatant political pressure, such as a tax audit, would almost certainly backfire. "There's no outright censorship, but there's a sophisticated control of the press," asserts Yang Sang-chul, an opposition lawmaker.

Mr. Yang notes that the government is a major stockholder in two broadcast companies and uses a public information bureau to influence coverage.

The rule of law gains

More than ever, Koreans can control what affects their lives using the courts. "A couple of decades ago, if a cop asked for a bribe, you had to give it. Today you can sue the cop," says a longtime foreign resident.

In years to come, courts will be crucial for democracy, says Moon Chong-in, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. Judges are becoming more assertive. During student protests last August, they demanded better documentation from police who sought arrest warrants.

Local officials listen

In 1995, elections for thousands of local offices compelled mayors and others local politicians to listen to their constituents rather than the central government. Soon after, a county official made headlines by refusing to issue building permits for two nuclear reactors. Bureaucrats in Seoul were infuriated. Local officials caved in, but it was a brief taste of empowerment.

President pulls strings

Have no doubt, the president still runs the show in South Korea. "It's a democracy, but it's an authoritarian democracy," says Pyun Chang-seop, a reporter at the Si-sa Journal, a major newsweekly.

The Constitution focuses a lot of power on the president, who can hire and fire his Cabinet and the prime minister without congressional hearings. Under Kim, economic ministers have served for an average of only 10 months. The opposition complains it is left out of the loop.

The ruling party "deliberately tries to keep information from the opposition party," says Yang, the opposition lawmaker. But the fact that a legal opposition exists at all, and can speak out, is progress.

More heat than light

Being the "opposition" can mean little more than that.

The standoff with communist North Korea means that communist and socialist parties are prohibited here. With little ideological divide, political parties aren't known for having strongly different perspectives. Ask a politician's aide why he picked his party and not another, and he might forcefully declare, "Because I come from South Cholla Province!"

This regionalism generates more heat than light in National Assembly debates. Even without distinct party ideals, lawmakers have kidnapped one another and exchanged blows when an urgent part of their agenda was threatened.

In part, this is because Koreans have difficulty seeing competition as more than a zero-sum game. "Here, if you lose out, it seems somehow a huge setback," says Lho Kyung-soo, a professor at Seoul National University. Those who seek compromise are branded opportunists.

Nuts-and-bolts policy discussion, such as whether ordering fewer fighter planes is a good way to trim the budget, doesn't happen.

Overcoming cultural tendencies and developing tolerance and robust democratic institutions take time, says Professor Moon. "Despite the democratic opening, past inertia continues."

A dictator rehabilitated

The stereotype is that Asians aren't predisposed to democracy, that they prefer strong leaders. Ironically, South Korean polls show the most popular president was Park Chung Hee, whose harsh rule from 1961 to 1979 also helped develop the country into one of Asia's economic "tigers." Still, if South Koreans could have Mr. Park back again, they would probably not say yes.

Key dates

1979: Autocratic President Park Chung Hee is assassinated.

1980: Gen. Chun Doo Hwan takes power in a coup.

1980: A democratic uprising in Kwangju is brutally crushed by Army troops.

1987: Demonstrators force military dictatorship to allow direct presidential elections.

1992: Kim Young Sam is elected first civilian president in three decades.

1996: Former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo are convicted and sentenced for political corruption and involvement in the 1980 Kwangju massacre.

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