At Long Last: The Struggle for Democracy in Korea

By Sam, Kim Young | Harvard International Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

At Long Last: The Struggle for Democracy in Korea


Sam, Kim Young, Harvard International Review


Kim Young Sam is President of the Republic of Korea.

When I was elected President of the Republic of Korea in December 1992 as the first civilian to hold the job in 32 years, it was not only the crowning achievement of my lifelong campaign for democracy, but a triumph of the Korean people, because it ended decades of a tumultuous struggle by us all against a succession of military dictators. The Republic of Korea thus became one of the few countries in Asia which had succeeded not only in economic development but in making a genuine democratic transition.

In the early days of my administration, however, some skeptics, both at home and abroad, had misgivings about whether I would be able to make a clear break with the military that had dominated South Korean politics for over three decades. Today, no one is asking that question any more, and Korean democracy is now on an irreversible track. We have succeeded in consolidating uncompromising civilian supremacy over the military, a rare achievement in new democracies formerly under military tutelage.

Last year, the Republic of Korea was invited to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the prestigious group of advanced industrial democracies. The invitation was symbolic of the acknowledgment by international society of Korea as an advanced industrial democracy. This achievement is all the more exceptional because it was accomplished despite the tragedies that afflicted Korea during the latter half of the twentieth century: national division, the devastation of the Korean War, and suffering under dictatorial regimes.

I believe in democracy as a universal value. The Korean experience shows that in Asia, too, democracy is compatible with economic development. This sends a message of hope to other developing countries around the globe. In this article, I would like to review the Korean struggle for democracy and share some thoughts on its ongoing evolution and future prospects.

The Struggle for Democracy

The twentieth century will be remembered as the era in which Koreans struggled constantly and courageously for political freedom. Koreans struggled valiantly against Japanese colonial rule during much of the first half of this century. This is why the Japanese control of Korea was the most repressive among all pre-war Japanese colonies. Koreans would not passively accept the Japanese attempt to destroy Korea's national identity and culture, so the Japanese responded with ruthless oppression.

After liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II, capitalism and democracy were introduced to Koreans by the United States. Since the capitalist market economy, universal suffrage, and universal education were imported from abroad, Koreans did not have the experience of developing democracy by themselves. Nevertheless, during those turbulent early post-liberation years, Koreans had, for the first time in history, an opportunity to learn about and adopt democratic institutions and norms.

It is amazing that the Republic of Korea managed to hold elections during the Korean War. Even brutal wartime conditions could not stop Koreans' aspiration for democracy. On August 5, 1952, in the midst of heated conflict, South Koreans went to the polls to choose their own president directly. They also elected their representatives in two local elections held in April and May of that year. Afterward, throughout the 1950s, a series of presidential, national assembly, and local elections were held regularly. However, regular elections by themselves were not enough to ensure full democracy. Under President Rhee Syng Man's government, even though liberal democracy was adopted in principle as the official political and social system, rigid anti-communism predominated as the working ideology. Whenever tensions occurred between these two ideologies, anti-communism took precedence over liberal democracy.

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