Signaling Democracy: Patron-Client Relations and Democratization in South Korea and Poland

By Yeo, Andrew | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2006 | Go to article overview

Signaling Democracy: Patron-Client Relations and Democratization in South Korea and Poland


Yeo, Andrew, Journal of East Asian Studies


Facing massive protests, why did incumbent regimes in both South Korea and Poland repress movements for democratization in the early 1980s but make democratic concessions to the opposition in the late 1980s? I demonstrate how the United States and the Soviet Union as superpower patron states influenced democratic transitions in South Korea and Poland. The different outcomes across time are partially attributed to superpower policies toward their client states. Absent in 1980 were strong, credible signals from the United States and the Soviet Union to their respective client states to support political liberalization. But in the late 1980s superpowers affected the calculus of client state elites by either signaling or encouraging governments to make concessions to the opposition.

KEYWORDS: democratization, signaling, patron-client relations, international pressure, Cold War, regime change, authoritarianism, security, South Korea, Poland

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The democratic transitions literature largely remains within the realm of comparative politics, focusing on domestic structures and agents when studying the internal transformation of political systems and institutions. Consequently, the international dimension stays in the background while factors emphasizing mass mobilization or elite bargaining take center stage.

In this article, I explore the international dimensions of democratization by focusing on superpower-client relations. Specifically, I examine US-South Korean and Soviet-Polish relations to show how superpowers affect the democratization process within their client states. Although most scholars acknowledge that international influences play at least a peripheral role in Korea's and Poland's democratic transition, political scientists traditionally use elite bargaining or mass-based theories to explain these two cases. My goal is to assess the salience of international influences by clarifying the role the superpowers played in expanding the opportunities for democratization by directly altering the strategic calculus of both elites and opposition forces in South Korea and Poland. The overarching goal of this article is not to challenge domestic explanations of democratic transition so much as to specify how in the Korean and Polish cases international forces interacted with domestic factors in the democratization process.

To show how US and Soviet patron-client relations influenced Korea's and Poland's democratic transition, I compare the role of superpowers in two different time periods. Both South Korean and Polish governments faced mass protests in 1980 but used the military to repress protestors and civil society. However, when widespread mass mobilization calling for democratic concessions arose again in 1987 in Korea and in 1988-1989 in Poland, both governments made concessions to the opposition, which subsequently led to a democratic transition. I contend that this difference in outcome between the two time periods is partially attributable to changing superpower policies. Absent in 1980 were credible signals from the United States and the Soviet Union to their respective client states to support political liberalization. These policies, however, changed in the late 1980s and the superpowers, as a result, affected the calculus of client state elites.

My argument proceeds as follows: In the first section, I briefly describe the "international dimensions" of democratization and develop some hypotheses about how the superpowers could in theory influence transition outcomes in their client states. In the next two sections, I apply these insights to the Korean and Polish cases with particular attention to two arenas of change from the early to late 1980s. First, the Korean and Polish regimes changed their response to mass protests. Second, the superpowers changed their reactions to pressure for democratization in their client states. The key question, therefore, is to demonstrate how these two dynamics were related. …

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