Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State

By Charles K. Armstrong | Go to book overview

Introduction

Civil society in contemporary Korea

Charles K. Armstrong

Few places in the world can match South Korea for the speed and depth of political and social change in recent decades. After nearly forty years of virtually continuous authoritarian rule, punctuated by brief moments of democratic upheaval (1960-1961, 1979-1980), the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) underwent a dramatic transformation from military government to civilian democracy, beginning with the demise of the Chun Doo Hwan regime in 1987. General Chun stepped down under pressure from the largest anti-government demonstrations in South Korean history, the culmination of a wide-ranging pro-democracy movement that brought students, workers, and the middle classes into the sphere of public protest in unprecedented numbers. 1

Unlike previous democratic breakthroughs that ended the autocratic rule of Syngman Rhee in 1960 and of Park Chung Hee in 1979, only to be followed by new authoritarian regimes, the democratic breakthrough of the late 1980s has shown signs of permanence. In 1992, long-time opposition figure Kim Young Sam was elected the first civilian president in over thirty years, as the representative of a political coalition with the previous ruling party; in 1997, Kim Dae Jung, a pro-democracy activist who had been sentenced to death under previous military governments, was elected president in the first peaceful transfer of power from the ruling party to the opposition that South Korea had ever experienced. But the political transformation in South Korea was more than a change of leadership. Ten years of democratization had nurtured a vibrant, active set of civic associations, independent from and often critical of the ruling government. Similar to other democratizing countries, these types of associations constituted what many Koreans called “civil society” (simin sahoe), often seen as the key element of Korea's maturing democracy in the 1990s. 2

The emergence of civil society in South Korea can be seen as part of a global surge of democratization from about the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, sometimes called the “Third Wave” of democracy, a surge that toppled authoritarian regimes in areas as far-flung as Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa. 3 With this wave of democratization, especially in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, came the revival of the concept of “civil

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