Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State

By Charles K. Armstrong | Go to book overview

5


Engendering civil society

The role of the labor movement

Hagen Koo

Much of the literature on civil society assigns a prominent role to the middle classes in nurturing and sustaining civil society. There are, of course, good reasons for this emphasis on the middle class. Historically, the development of active civic organizations and a public sphere outside the control of the state came with the expansion of the market economy and the middle classes. And it is the middle classes that are most likely to possess the kinds of interests, inclinations, and cultural attributes - such as moderation, tolerance for different opinions, liberalism, and communicative skills - which are necessary for maintaining a viable civil society. Furthermore, in many societies it is the middle classes that have played a pivotal role in bringing about democracy and defending it against potential threats.

The recent experience of democratization and the civil society movement in South Korea fits this general model very nicely. Rapid economic growth based on export-oriented industrialization was accompanied by the rapid expansion of the middle classes, which became increasingly vocal and resistant to the authoritarian regime, and at a particular juncture became mobilized on a large scale to bring about a political breakthrough for democratization. It is widely agreed among observers of South Korean politics that without the growth of sizable middle classes, a smooth transition to democracy might not have been possible. 1 Of particular importance is the mushrooming growth of civic groups or citizens' movement organizations in the wake of the democratic transition in 1987. These new social movements - aimed at promoting distributive justice, a clean environment, gender equality, fair elections, consumer protection, and the like - are predominantly led by middle-class, well-educated citizens. Thus, as elsewhere in the world, it seems to make sense to look at South Korea's present civil society as a natural product of capitalist economic development and of its social concomitant, the expansion of the middle class.

However, this chapter takes issue with privileging the role of the middle classes in the making of South Korean democracy and civil society. Against this prevailing assumption, I argue that democracy and civil society in Korea did not occur as the “natural” outcome of economic growth and the expansion of the middle class, but as a consequence of persistent struggles by

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