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Sung Chul Yang, The North and South Korean Political Systems - A Comparative Analysis, revised ed., Seoul: Hollym 1999. 883 pages, appendices, index. ISBN: 1-56591-105-9.

Reviewed by Bernhard Seliger
Hanguk University of Foreign Studies


The Korean political coordinates, for decades immobile and not even changed by the end of the cold war, the origin of Korean division, suddenly change: the historic event of the Inter-Korean Summit in June 2000 and the subsequent developments led to an intense reunification discussion and sometimes even euphoria in South Korea and the international media. In this respect, Yang's revised 1000 page (with the appenices and index) volume on the comparison of North and South Korean political institutions could not be more timely. While the most recent developments could not be included in the book, it provides a most thorough analysis of the political systems as they evolved in the two Koreas after 1945. In the actual euphoria surrounding the new politics of North Korea, such an analysis is exactly what is missing. Yang's study presents a sound basis for a more sober analysis of the policy options and challenges for the Korean peninsula. Originally written in 1992 and published in a first version in 1994, the basic comparison of political institutions is still the main reason to read Yang's book, rather than for its revisions in light of the Asian crisis.

The Korean peninsula, together with Germany, is one of the few "laboratories" for political scientists interested in studying the effects of different political institutions upon a society without the variables of a different cultural background. These cultural differences ­ ultimately the reasons for the ongoing dispute between area studies and political science ­ tend to devalue the analysis of dichotomies between different countries. But in Korea diametrically opposed institutions exist despite a unique degree of cultural and ethnic homogeneity: the two Koreas are "two bowls moulded of the same clay".

Before studying the dichotomous "two bowls" in the first part of the analysis, Yang in three chapters tries to analyse the "clay"--the common political heritage--and its influences on contemporary politics. After a short historical introduction he discusses the distinguishing features of political culture in ancient Korea, namely the tradition of authoritarianism, the sharp distinction between classes, the dominant influence of the bureaucracy and the related political longevity, factionalism and the existence of a state religion as political power mechanism. Indeed, many of these features can be found in a modified form in modern Korea as well. Attached to this chapter are various maps and tables concerning Korean history, administrative shape, diagrams of Chosôn factional strife, etc. Finally, a chapter on the origins and developments of Korean nationalism discusses the idea of Korea as a nation, especially in the colonial era, a period in which the ideological bifurcation between nationalists and communists, which later led to the installation of two different ideological systems in Korea, had already begun.

In the second part of his book, Yang analyses contemporary political settings, namely, the politics of partition in Korea and ideological developments in the North and South. He begins by stating that no division of a nation in the wake of World War II was so arbitrary, abnormal and artificial as the division of Korea and he pins the blame for this partition mainly on the US. This, however, seems a bit too facile, given contemporary internal struggles and ideological differences (e.g. communist forces, nationalists, Japanese collaborators, especially the police force, landlords, etc.) within Korea. The partition of Korea was neither more abnormal than that, say, of Vietnam or Yemen, nor was it entirely unrelated to domestic divisions. It was mainly the outcome of cold war politics, but also facilitated by the bifurcations Yang himself discusses in his book. This point becomes even clearer in his following discussion of the different steps of implementing Juche ideology in the North and the ideological regimes of the South, which were characterized by various forms of conservatism and subsequently liberalism.

The third and fourth parts of the book deal with the political institutions of North Korea and South Korea, respectively. Both parts are structured in chapters discussing the political framework, the evolution of formal political structures, the ruling elites and the seizure of power by the rulers themselves. North Korea has been during its history the prototype of a totalitarian state. After treating features North Korea shares with socialist states, Yang follows with a more interesting discussion of the specific elements of North Korean socialism. The first element is the step-by-step implementation of the Juche idea. In terms of political leadership, this also represented the step-by-step consolidation of Kim Il Sung's absolute power. A second special characteristic of North Korea lies its tiny size and homogeneity, which has helped implement policies and personality cult in an even more totalitarian way. The problems of ethnic minorities and territorial control typical for its larger neighbours that have resulted in resistance to the totalitarian state do not exist in North Korea. Accordng to Yang, another factor enhancing totalitarian control has been a siege mentality resulting from North Korea's geographical situation and now its ideological uniqueness. The population of the North, he concludes, is 'mobilized, but immobile', i.e. highly controlled through and mobilized by the state apparatus, but only as a powerless, manipulated mass.

Yang follows with an outline of formal political structures (including again a wealth of statistical material on North Korean political institutions, such as the educational background of lawmakers, a list of the most important policy makers, and organizational charts) and a discussion of the ruling elites and their factional affiliations that shows that 'the history of purges in North Korea is a chronicle of Kim's political triumph'. A more biographical perspective on Kim Il Sung's rise to power in the next chapter corrobates this judgement.

The discussion of South Korea's political system, due to frequent changes of regime, is more complex. Yang identifies anti-liberalism, anti-parliamentarianism, corporatism, developmentalism and praetorianism, (the involvement of military officers in politics) as typical elements of the authoritarian phase of government. However, these authoritarian tendencies always existed in tension with the constitutional pledge that Korea was a democratic republic whose sovereignty resides in the people. The short democratic interlude of 1960 could not resolve this tension and even the democratisation process since the late 1980s has been hampered, according to Yang, by persisting undemocratic values and behaviours in the South Korean society: ritualism and favouritism, regionalism (the Honam/ Yongnam split), 'party boss-ism' and the ultimate power cult of the presidential system constitute major problems for democratisation. Yang touches on the rapid transformation of Korea with its resulting urbanization and industrialization, but fails to explore their impact on the political structure further. A discussion of the role of economic freedom and development as a basis for claims for political participation, especially of the widening middle classes, is lacking.

The analysis of the ruling elite of South Korea is based on an earlier study of Yang (together with Ahn Byong-man) that discussed the elites from 1948 to 1988 according to their personal and educational background, career, regional background and age. In line with the previous discussion of regionalism, ritualism and favouritism, the result is obvious: elite selection is ascription-oriented, not achievement-oriented. Despite the widespread image of meritocracy in the Confucian-oriented society, the three connections (blood, school and region) are determining factors of elite selection. The seizure of power in South Korea is opposed to that of the North: while the North saw the constant rise of one leader, Kim Il Sung, and the smooth transfer of power to his son (as far as can be known in available sources), the South has been characterized by a series of legitimacy crises. The legitimacy of the first government rested solely on American recognition, and the Rhee through Roh governments all experienced serious challenges to their legitimacy.

In the fifth part of the book Yang compares the economic systems of the two Koreas. Beginning with a short discussion of their respective resource endowments and natural conditions, he describes the centrally planned, 'command' economy of North Korea and the market, 'capitalist' economy of South Korea. In this part a revision in the light of newer research is necessary: Yang's comparison is based on data available in the early 1990s and does not take into account the now well-known problems with the official data of socialist states nor the rapid decline of performance of the North Korean economy after the break-up of the communist commonwealth are cited. Despite its Juche ideology of autarky, North Korea seems not to be an economically viable independent unit, as famines and its desperate policy of opening towards Southern (and Western) aid and investment shows. In this respect, it is bewildering to read in this revised edition that 'both North and South Korea have largely succeeded in solving the people's basic bread and circus question'. Here ­ as before in the question of South Korean democratisation - Yang misses the chance to relate economic development and the evolution of political institutions.

After this systematic opposition of political and economic institutions Yang investigates some critical issues in more depth, such as the seizure of power in both Koreas, the arms race, the educational system and reunification policy. While the first of these questions has already been dealt with before, the other three are important extensions of the previous analysis. The chapter on educational systems in particular offers an enlightening contrast of the North's totalitarian system, which faced no serious ideological opposition and the South, where democratic and authoritarian educational ideals competed for dominance.

The chapter on unification begins with a comparison with Germany. While the basic conditions of Germany (e.g. its economic situation, the political organization of the dominant partner, rapprochement, and media availability in the years before unification) in 1990 and Korea in 2000 are quite incomparable, the author identifies two useful features that merit exploration: first, the German unification was an interplay of controllable and uncontrollable events. While plans for unification (like Helmut Kohl's ten steps plan) were made, circumstances often made those plans worthless (e.g., mass demonstrations in Eastern Germany requiring immediate change to the Deutschmark); secondly, German unification began with euphoria over newly won unity and the end of the communist state, but ended in diappointment for many, because neither could the communist legacy could be dealt with sufficiently, nor did the new system meet the high expectations of the people. For Korea, these two observations deserve specific attention, since it can be expected that they will prove even more important in the Korean case. Uncontrollable events might shape the unification process much more in Korea, since neither a power transfer from the communists to a democratic government is secured, nor is information about political and economic conditions in North Korea abundant. Unification euphoria is already great in South Korea, with the steps of rapprochement. Given the disastrous state of the North's economy and the South's fragile economic recovery, however, the problems following unification might be much deeper here. In this respect, the dilemma between fast political transformation towards democracy (which might lead to a mass migration to the South or the requirement of mass transfers of subsidies to the North) and smooth economic transformation (which would require a gradual increase of productivity and gradual integration of North Korea into the world economy) should have been explored further.

After a conclusion summing up the book so far, two short chapters are added in the revised edition on the domestic agenda, i.e. the restructuring of the South Korean economy and society after the Asian crisis, and unification. While this addition is important and understandable, it is at the same time the weakest part of the book. Sung Chul Yang's academic career (as professor of political science and dean of academic affairs at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyunghee University and president of the Korean Association of International Studies) changed into a political career with the National Congress for New Politics, the party supporting Kim Dae Jung's presidency after 1997. His changed role from an academic to a politician changes the perspective of the book. The last two chapters outline government policy in two areas: 1) domestic reform policy ('DJnomics'), based on the reform of the public and private sector, labour market and financial sector plus external liberalization ('four plus one policy'); 2) the 'sunshine' policy of Kim Dae Jung, written, however, before the breakthrough of the inter-Korean summit.

While both parts try to strike a balance between partisan and academic analysis, as a revision for Yang's book, they are a disappointment. A revision of the previous chapter would have proved far more interesting (if more cumbersome). Neither the transfer of power in the North nor the 1998 transfer of power to an opposition party in the South that signified the maturing of democracy are included in this previous analysis. Also, as earlier noted, the discussion of the North Korean economic disaster and its consequences for unification policy merits a broader foundation. Despite these shortcomings, Yang's book is probably the most thorough analysis of North and South Korean political institutions available in English. It covers a broader theme than most other books (like Kim Joungwon's 'Divided Korea') and gives a wealth of information including extensive appendices, and as such, the one thousand pages (!) of this volume are well worth reading.


Seliger, Bernhard 2000
Review of Sung Chul Yang, The North and South Korean Political Systems - A Comparative Analysis
Korean Studies Review 2000, no. 8

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