[KS] KSR 2001-17: _Mass Politics and Culture_ and_Consolidating Democracy_

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Aug 22 05:33:56 EDT 2001

_Mass Politics and Culture in Democratizing Korea_, by Doh C. Shin.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1999. 320 pages. ISBN:

_Consolidating Democracy in South Korea_, edd. by Larry Diamond and
Byoung-Kook Kim. London: Lynne Rienner. 2000. ISBN: 1-5558-7848-2.

Reviewed by Mike Goodwin
College Station, Texas

	[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 4 (2001): 184-88.  _Acta
Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

The Republic of Korea's transition to democracy began arguably on June 29,
1987 when the then would-be Democratic Justice Party (DJP) presidential
candidate Roh Tae Woo "relieved," as Larry Diamond and Byung-Kook Kim write
in their new collection, _Consolidating Democracy in South Korea_, "a
dangerous stalemate between the authoritarian regime and its democratic
opposition" (p. 2). Any number of points could be made about this.
Roh's decision, for example, to stand down his candidacy (until Korea's
military ruler, Chun Doo Hwan, had both pardoned the imprisoned Kim Dae
Jung and allowed for direct presidential elections) served to contain what
were increasingly virulent, widespread, and highly popular "anti-Chun"
demonstrations. Yet relieving the 1987 crisis as he did also led, in part,
to Roh's own election as the president of the Republic later that same
year. For in the following December election (and in a classic Korean-style
moment of failure to align national interests) the opposition vote was
"split" between the newly released Kim Dae Jung and the Reunification
Democratic Party's candidate, Kim Young Sam.

What more can be said about the summer of 1987 when Chun Doo Hwan
reluctantly accepted Roh's demands?[1] Perhaps it is this: though thirteen
years could rush by since that time, nothing -well, almost nothing (in the
realm of Korean democracy anyway) would ever again seem as clear as it did
back then, on that day. Or such is the overwhelming impression I have
recently formed on reading both _Consolidating Democracy in South Korea_, as
well as Doh C. Shin's masterly 1999 contribution to the "Cambridge
Asia-Pacific Studies" series, _Mass Politics and Culture in
Democratizing Korea_.[2]

Before I explain just what I mean here allow me to speak to the market by
emphasizing some methodological points. These two works complement each
other in several important respects and this should make them attractive to
educators in Korean Studies. Taken together, for instance, they might
nicely serve as the foundation for a critical, comprehensive, and extremely
up-to-date middle and/or upper-year college "survey" of the complex array
of issues-both theoretical and empirical-underlying Korea's efforts to
claim a place amongst the so-called, "third wave" democracies.
Despite all the substantive changes that have, since 1987, combined to
produce within Korea what Shin calls, "a politically new state," (and
despite the rapid pace with which such changes have been affected), Korean
democratization "still remains largely unexplored using the theories and
methods of comparative political inquiry" (xxiii). If it is true, as
Seymour Martin Lipset has said (and here I paraphrase), that to know a lot
about one nation, and one alone, is really to know very little about
anything at all, then the comparative aspect of Shin's study may well
emerge as one of its primary strengths.

Shin's study both compares and contrasts Korean developments with those in
Eastern and Central Europe, as well as Scandinavia and Western Europe and
other regions (e.g., Taiwan). But the analogous aspect of this study of
Korean democracy is not limited to international comparison alone; there is
also a cultural-theoretical side to the work. For a decade that witnessed
the veritable emergence of a new state in Northeast Asia, Shin declares,
"not a single volume can be found [that offers] a comprehensive and
balanced account of the Korean example, which 'challenges directly the
notion that Confucian societies don't really want democracy'Éand offers 'an
East Asian model of prosperity and democracy'É" (xxiii), _Mass Politics and
Culture in Democratizing Korea_ aims to fill this gap. Thus, while Shin
situates Korea today within the history of similar Western experience, the
book also promotes a vision of the complementarity of democracy with
traditional Asian values.

Sensitivity to both comparativist and cultural issues is a key virtue of
Shin's work. Another is its robust empiricism. "This book," the author
writes, "seeks to define and distinguish the Korean model of
democratization in terms of what the Korean people themselves have actually
experienced during the course of change" (xxiv, my emphasis). But what is
the best way to understand what people have actually experienced? The
answer, of course, is "to engage in survey research asking people directly
what they think and how they choose to act in the political process" (xxvii).

The core data for Shin's study was collected (by Seoul National University
and Korea-Gallup) over a period of some nine years. Beginning in 1988, six
nation-wide surveys were conducted; two in the Roh era, and four throughout
Kim Young Sam's tenure (November 1993, November 1994, January 1996, and May
1997).[3] It is, Shin suggests at the outset, incontestable: "ÉKoreans
neither interpret nor value democracy in the same way as Westerners do."
(xxix) In an effort, therefore, to avoid the "teleological assumption that
Koreans are becoming like citizens of Western democracies," many of the
indexes used by Shin (both qualitative and metric) were constructed
specifically for this study(274).[4]

The surveys themselves comprise over eighty separate questions ranging
across twenty-two different categories and were designed to solicit-among
other things-citizens' understanding of democracy, views of their
experiences with democratization, their preferences for democracy (both in
theory and in action), as well as a sense of the nature of their commitment
to democracy, and their dissociation from authoritarianism, etc. (pp.

Diamond and Shin's edited compilation, _Consolidating Democracy in South
Korea_ contains eight quite independent chapters; each of which (with the
exception of Kim and Diamond's introductory essay and the final segment of
the book by Georgetown University's Asian Studies Director, David
Steinberg) is written by a Korea-based scholar. Contributors to this work
also include Song-min Kim (Yonsei University), Hyun-Chin Lim (Seoul
National), Chung-in Moon (Yonsei), Hyug Baeg Im (Korea University), and
Kyoung-Ryung Seong (Hallym).[5]

The subjects discussed by these authors include comparative assessments of
the Korean experience with consolidation (H-B Im), the ambiguous successes
of Korean political parties (B-K Kim), the achievements (and remaining
objectives) of an emergent civil society (Seong), dilemmas faced by labor
(B-K Kim & H-C Lim), an analysis of the connections between the
consolidation process and Korea's overall economic performance (Moon and
S-M Kim), and a study of the effects on electoral politics of the 1997-1998
economic crisis (B-K Kim).

_Consolidating Democracy in South Korea_ begins with a valuable overview of
the book in which its editors seem to chart a middle course between the
optimists and the pessimists. "[E]ven if South Korea's democracy can be
considered 'consolidated'" (a point on which the contributors to this
volume disagree), its political institutions, write Diamond and Kim,
"remain shallow and immature, unable to structure a meaningful choice of
policy courses and to provide the responsiveness, accountability, and
transparency expected by the South Korean public." (p. 2) But why is this?
And what are the obstacles facing Korea in its efforts to achieve the level
of stability now enjoyed by other "third wave" democracies in Central and
Southern Europe?

As I mentioned, Diamond and Kim's book dovetails nicely with Shin's study,
and educators may find this helpful in developing their own curricula. In
fact, Shin's national surveys provide much of the data for Diamond and
Kim's own introductory chapter. As Shin writes, "[c]ontrary to what was
expected during the promising transition from military rule, the
consolidation of democratic political structure has advanced neither
quickly nor steadily. Nor has the political culture consolidatedÉ" (p. 250)
Building on this, Diamond and Kim note that, while in 1996 a full 84
percent of Koreans supported the shift from a military regime to the Sixth
Republic, "[m]ass public support for democracy declines sharply É in the
wake of the 1997 financial collapseÉ" (p. 5) In fact, "in October 1998,
only 54 percent said 'democracy is preferable to any other form of

But there's more as well -and it's not good news. In the final, cynical
year of Kim Young Sam's "democratic" administration (a period that saw more
Koreans prosecuted under the National Security Act than under Roh Tae Woo),
the Korean polity was badly battered by a volley of scandals. These
included the arrest (for bribery) of a key Blue House advisor, the arrest
(for bribery) of the director of the nation's Security Oversight
Commission, the arrest (for bribery) of the Defense Minister, the
resignation (under suspicion of bribery) of Kim's Health & Welfare
Minister, the arrest (for bribery) of the President of Seoul Bank, and of
course, the complete collapse of Hanbo Steel -something which eventually
led to the arraignment of Kim's Interior Minister, a close fund-raiser, and
the conviction of his own son.[6]

Given all this, is it surprising that, as Kim and Diamond report, by
October 1998 (and with the economic crisis now full-blown), "[a]lmost a
third of respondentsÉclaimed that 'under certain situations, a dictatorship
is preferable'" to a democratically elected government? Is it perplexing to
find (as anyone who has been reading the newspapers lately surely senses),
that close to a majority (i.e., 44 percent) believe they would actually
"prefer 'rule by a dictator like Park Chung Hee rather than a
democratically elected president?'" (p. 5)

This sort of backsliding in the consolidation of democracy contrasts, as
mentioned, with relative steady successes enjoyed by other new democracies
in Central and Southern Europe, as well as Asia (i.e., Taiwan).[7] Yet when
we step back and reexamine the apparent clarity that surrounded the events
of June 29, 1987, we may begin to wonder what happened? Where did the
apparent promise of a straightforward trajectory marking the gradual but
steady consolidation of democracy in Korea go? Will the early gains of the
1988 to 1996 period return? If so, when? And how? These are complex
questions touching not just on the procedural or "electoral" domain (the
solidity of which seems, in a way, to be one of the few certainties in
Korean politics today) but also on matters of fundamental cultural
transformation as well. Those interested in exploring further the wide
range of issues currently influencing both the consolidation of democracy
in Korea, as well as the participation in that process by the Korean people
themselves may wish to begin their exploration with the works discussed


1 Hoare, James E. and Susan Pares, _Conflict in Korea: An Encyclopedia_
(ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA. 1999) p. 164

2 We know that between 1962 and 1978 -a period of some sixteen years-the
autocratic Park Chung Hee was five times "elected" president of the
Republic of Korea (i.e., in 1962, 1967, 1971, 1972, and 1978). How often
though do we reflect on this fact: the "consolidation" of democracy in
Korea has been under way for a period of time equal in length to fully
one-half of Park and Chun's (much despised yet increasingly fondly
remembered) "military" era as a whole (i.e., 1961-1987)?

3 As I read Shin's survey findings I found myself recalling some major
events on Korea's bumpy road to democracy: e.g., the Kim Young Sam
government's desperate (and ultimately foolish) efforts to "railroad"
anti-democratic labor and national security laws through the National
Assembly during the Christmas season of 1996; the same government's "raid"
on the student movement at Yonsei University in the summer of 1996; and of
course the slow, painful unfolding of the Hanbo scandal in mid-1997. From
this point of view, Shin's data is fascinating in its specificity, because
it allows readers to chart their own impressions of Korean democracy on the
basis of their own preferred recollections (and to then compare their
results with the Korean peoples' themselves).

4 Shin's study rejects ethnocentric (Western) teleology and something else
too; i.e., the sort of "procedural minimum" definitions of democracy that
appropriate aspects of Schumpeter, Dahl, and Huntington, among others. Such
views tend, Shin writes, "to equate democracy with the mass public's free,
fair, and competitive elections [sic] of political leadership on a regular
basis." (p. xxiv)

For Shin, this perspective misses too much about the quality of life under
democratization. But if widening his analysis to include cultural, as well,
more traditional electoral, legal, and institutional factors strengthens
his study, it also invites controversy. In 1997 Bruce Cumings, for example,
wrote this: "[t]here is no questionÉin my mind that the American
organization of society in our time, speeded by a globe-ranging media,
carries every alternative social form before it. It is deeply popular
because it convinces people everywhere that they can lead a life of
carefree individuality, and thus it transforms and dissolves the
alternatives one after another, including old Korea." (_Korea's Place in The
Sun_, p. 14)  Surely such claims fly)-apriori-in the face of what Shins
seeks to do?

5 In addition to their academic responsibilities at the institutions
mentioned, both Im and Seong are members of Kim Dae Jung's Presidential
Commission on Policy and Planning and, therefore, likely bring to their
work a measure of practical, "on the ground" experience.

6 Source: James West, Research Fellow (East Asian Legal Studies), Harvard
Law School, Harvard University, June 6, 1998. Personal Correspondence.

7 It may be objected that Taiwan has not undergone the economic "trauma"
and, therefore, the deep social and political stresses to which Korea has
been subject since 1997. One rebuttal-or at least a balancing comment-is
that while Taiwan has indeed largely escaped the recent Asian economic
"crisis," Japan certainly has not and (on the surface at least) one sees
there little evidence of a widespread withdrawal of support for the
principles of democratic governance. Also, Taiwan shares with Korea the
day-to-day reality of remaining cold war tensions, as well as a highly
contested political future. (A fact that is often cited as an important,
even an "exceptional" factor influencing the consolidation of democracy in
the latter nation.)

Goodwin, Mike 2001
Review of _Mass Politics and Culture in Democratizing Korea_, by Doh C. Shin
(1999) and _Consolidating Democracy in South Korea_, edd. by Larry Diamond and
Byoung-Kook Kim (2000)
Korean Studies Review_ 2001, no. 17
Electronic file: http://www.iic.edu/thelist/review/ksr01-17.htm

More information about the Koreanstudies mailing list