CHAPTER 3
Civil Society in Democratizing Korea
Sunhyuk Kim

Civil Society and Democratization in Korea:
An Overview and a Puzzle

Korean democratization defies easy classification and presents a unique challenge to students of comparative politics. Unlike some cases in Southern Europe and Latin America, what happened in Korea in 1987 was not really a “pacted” transition – a democratic transition that is centered around and determined by elite calculations and interactions.1 That there was a fatal tension and split between the hard-liners (e.g., Chun Doo Hwan) and the soft-liners (e.g., Roh Tae Woo) in June 1987 is a plausible but very dubious claim considering the circumstances preceding and following the democratic transition.

On the other hand, democratization in Korea was not an earthshaking revolution, unlike some cases in Eastern Europe. Although the June Uprising in 1987 and the ruling party's eight-point democratization package were in large measure a response to such an unprecedented “popular upsurge, ” what happened afterward was far from a handsome victory for the insurgents. The eventual conclusion of the 1987 “revolution” was incredibly anticlimactic. The ruling party candidate, who was one of the coconspirators of the 1979–80 multistaged military coup and a key partaker in Chun's highly authoritarian rule, was elected president in December 1987. Neither the elites nor the masses “won” democracy in Korea; rather, what fundamentally characterized Korean democratization and

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1
The elitist paradigm in the literature on democratic transition and consolidation, based principally on South European and Latin American experiences, maintains that “there is no transition whose beginning is not the consequence of important divisions within the authoritarian regime itself, principally … between hardliners and softliners.” See Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 19.

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