Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Public Ordering of Private Coercion: Urban Redevelopment and Democratization in South Korea

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Public Ordering of Private Coercion: Urban Redevelopment and Democratization in South Korea

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study explores collaboration between state actors and non-state specialists in the market for coercion. We focus on the case of forced evictions in South Korea, where violence carried out by private companies has occurred with the implicit, and at times explicit, sanctioning of the state. This level of government-private security cooperation has traditionally been explained by various hypotheses, including arguments about the weak capacity of a state to enforce compliance, trends in the neo-liberal marketization of state power, or as the outcome of a state being captured by the capitalist classes. Documenting the history of urban redevelopment projects and changes in government responses to major protest incidents in Korea, we instead argue that this niche market for private force is an observable implication of a shift in state-society relations in the wake of democratization. This phenomenon is, in effect, a very undemocratic response to democratization, by state elites.

Keywords

South Korea, democratization, state-society relations, state capacity, state autonomy, public coercion, private violence, urban redevelopment, private security company

INTRODUCTION

This study focuses on explaining the evolution of cooperation between state actors and non-state specialists in the market for extralegal force. To illustrate the argument, this paper examines specific cases of forced evictions in South Korea (Korea hereafter) where legally sanctioned private security companies have obtained implicit, and at times, explicit approval by the state for coercive, and sometimes illegal--according to Korean statutes--activities. Beginning with a discussion of the repressive shantytown development in the 1960s and 1970s, we carefully trace the shifting political tactics, clearly observed in the highly politicized and publicized protests in the 1980s, in which private actors in the market for force have increasingly replaced the police on the front lines of anti-eviction protests. In doing so, these private specialists in violence have frequently acted as proxies for state power.

Traditional wisdom posits that such phenomena can be explained by various suppositions, including (a) a lack of material capacity on the part of the state to enforce compliance (i.e., the "weak state" argument), (b) a general trend in the neo-liberalization of the state (i.e., the "contracting-out" argument), or (c) as an outcome of the state being manipulated by the material interests of the capitalist class (i.e., the "captured state" argument). While we find some merit to these arguments, we argue that explanations that fail to address the role of state strength and democratization suffer from omitted variable bias.

To grasp the underpinnings of our argument, we begin with conceptualizations of states, of which "ideal-types" emphasize monopolistic power over the available means and the use of coercion (Weber 1946). This supremacy in force, it is argued, is a necessary first-order condition for moving out of chaotic environments and into ones characterized by stability and productivity (Olson 2000). More specifically, as noted by Bates, Greif, and Singh (2002, 61), the success or failure of states is reflected in their ability to (a) enforce private property rights, (b) pacify civil society, and (c) extract taxes. All three tasks depend on the ability of the state to achieve primacy over the means and use of coercion within their given territory.

SUBCONTRACTING COERCION TO ENHANCE STATE CAPACITY

Although ideal-type definitions and conceptions of states emphasize monopolistic control over the means and use of coercion within their territories, few states have been able to legitimately claim such complete control, especially in the early phases of state development. (1) Reflecting this reality, state seekers and state makers alike have employed various methods and strategies to build state-based authority, including the buying, subjecting, and outright elimination of private powers (Tilly 1986, 175). …

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