[KS] KSR 2004-16: _Elites and Political Power in South Korea_, by Byong-Man Ahn

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Mon Oct 4 04:04:58 EDT 2004

_Elites and Political Power in South Korea_, by Byong-Man Ahn, 2003. 
Cheltenham and Northampton, UK: Edward Elgar. 339 pages. (ISBN 

reviewed by Carl J. Saxer
University of Copenhagen
cjs at hum.ku.dk

	Elites and Political Power in South Korea is based on earlier 
work on the Korean government by Byong-Man Ahn published in Korean 
and takes part in a longstanding debate in political science, and 
especially within studies of democracy, concerning the formation and 
importance of elites within the political system. Divided into five 
sections and 14 chapters, the book ambitiously attempts to analyze 
whether the "vicious cycle of domineering [is] an outgrowth of 
Korea's native culture" and whether this authoritarianism is 
"characteristic of developing countries in their quest for political 
stability and economic growth" (x).

	Part One, which contains a single chapter, situates the 
changes Korea has undergone within a global context, and introduces 
the concepts of "critical elections" and "cycle of dominance," which, 
the author argues, are valuable tools for analyzing political 
developments in Korea (9). Part Two, consisting of four chapters, 
deals with developments in the bureaucracy until the time of national 
division and discusses the importance of political culture. The 
author argues that the "hierarchical and collective consciousness" at 
the center of the "Confucian-oriented bureaucracy" survived colonial 
rule "without being significantly altered" (45). The author claims 
that while Korea after liberation "shrug[ged] off the Japanese 
pattern of authoritarian rule," the people gave "tacit recognition to 
Korea's  authoritarianism," and that the absence of any significant 
difference between the two resulted in their "blending" and the 
subsequent reinforcement of Korean attitudes " attuned to and 
compliant with authoritarian rule" (47).

	Part Three, whose five chapters make it the longest portion 
of the book, analyzes the major shifts in power in the post-division 
period. Although it does not bring forth new information, Chapter Six 
provides an adequate overview of how the opposition parties reacted 
to the increasingly authoritarian bent of the nation's leaders during 
the post-war period, and how ruling elites, among them the president 
of the first republic, "Rhi Syng Man" [sic], increasingly turned to 
violent suppression of the opposition. In the following chapter, the 
author gives an excellent overview of the changes in Korean 
governmental structure since the First Republic. In fact, the book is 
at its best when the author analyses the Korean government's 
administrative structure. Chapter Eight is a brief but detailed 
analysis of Korean presidents from Rhee to Kim Young Sam. This 
chapter, like most, offers an interesting theoretical discussion that 
attempts to link empirical data to ongoing debates within political 
science. The analysis in Chapter Seven, for example, is based on a 
survey conducted in 1992 and repeated in 1997 among more than 200 
political scientists and administrators, which was designed to 
"illuminate a way out of the vicious cycle of tragic terminations of 
the presidency and to open new vistas for a politics responsive to 
new social conditions and social aspirations for the twenty-first 
century" (131). Unfortunately, how this goal is to be achieved is not 
explained, and the author arrives at a conclusion unsurprising to 
those who follow current political attitudes in Korea that Park Chung 
Hee remains the most admired leader of Korea.

	Next, in what is without doubt the strongest chapter in the 
book, the author turns to an analysis of the ruling elites in Korea. 
Tracking such issues as family background, education, prior career, 
and how recruitment took place from the First Republic to the 
present, the author convincingly argues that, although "meritocracy 
has found its niche in the bureaucratic hierarchy" (191), the ruling 
elite remains narrow and dominated by the graduates of a few select 
universities. Chapter Ten consists of an analysis of what the author 
terms "crucial election." He argues, that for an election to merit 
designation as "crucial," significant political change must take 
place due to the election result (195). In the author's view, only 
elections resulting in an opposition political party capable of 
"significantly challenging the government" can be deemed crucial 
(197). Using Samuel Huntington's work on party development and a 
detailed analysis of National Assembly elections, the author argues 
that the development of political parties in Korea have "evolved 
through the repetitious cycle of four stages" (207). He claims that 
while the period prior to the Yushin regime was characterized by the 
"vicious cycle of party development," developments since 1985 show 
evidence of a party system settling into a "stable pattern" in which 
the "concept of crucial elections will no longer hold true" (219). 
While this chapter does an excellent job of analyzing electoral 
developments as such, however, the usage, definition and argument on 
"crucial elections" strikes this reviewer as circular, as all 
elections leading to significant change are deemed "crucial 
elections," solely on the basis of the change that resulted from the 

	In Part Four, Ahn examines the dynamics of what he terms the 
"intra-political" system. Chapter Eleven analyses the administrative 
set-up with a focus on relations between central and local 
governments. After an informed theoretical discussion, he examines 
the issue of decentralization versus centralization. Again, here, in 
analysis of administrative structure, he is at his best. The author 
argues that while the civic movement for democracy in the 1980s 
"posed a new threat to the dominance of the central government" 
(242), centuries-long Confucianism has "reduced local governments 
into a pale shadow" (243). Chapter Twelve analyses relations between 
the executive and the bureaucracy.  Ahn argues that while the 
political neutrality of public officials has "exercised a remarkable 
influence on the executive administration" (257) and that "public 
officials in Korea are more severely constrained in their political 
activities than their counterparts in Western Europe" (267), 
nevertheless this neutrality has not been observed in reality. He 
further claims that, as democracy in Korea matures, the country will 
probably follow a similar path as other democracies with "the 
emancipation of public officials in Korea from political neutrality" 
(269). Chapter Thirteen is a similar investigation that focuses on 
the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. An 
excellent quantitative analysis establishes that the executive has 
dominated the legislative branch when it comes to passing bills. He 
also, in my opinion, correctly argues that, while the 1987 
constitution gave the National Assembly new powers in regard to its 
oversight and control function, the Assembly has been "much aggrieved 
by problems that threatened to eclipse its positive effects" (284).

	The final chapter provides an overview of developments in 
Korean political economy with an emphasis on the relationship between 
political society and business. However, while the treatment of the 
topic is interesting, a proper conclusion that pulled the book's 
diverse threads together would have been very welcome.

	In summary, Elites and Political Power in South Korea is a 
very interesting treatment of a topic that has not been dealt with 
extensively in English. However, in addition to the absence of a 
conclusion, the book suffers from very uneven quality in the English 
prose and a lack of proper editing. This is particularly the case in 
regard to Romanization and the usage of political science terms. Two 
examples will suffice: the Independence Army is the Dok Rip Kun (51), 
and Roh Tae-woo's move in the late '80s to improve relations with 
communist countries becomes "Rho's nordic politik" (95).

Saxer, Carl 2004
_Elites and Political Power in South Korea_, by Byong-Man Ahn,  (2002)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2004, no. 16
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr04-16.htm
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