Democratization and Its Discontents: Origins of the Present Crisis in South Korea

By Lie, John | Monthly Review, February 1991 | Go to article overview

Democratization and Its Discontents: Origins of the Present Crisis in South Korea


Lie, John, Monthly Review


DEMOCRATIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS: ORIGINS OF THE PRESENT CRISIS IN SOUTH KOREA

Double-digit growth in GNP and the recent democratization have drawn attention to South Korea as the model of third world development. Yet even as Goldstar TVs in the living rooms and Hyundai cars in the driveways of suburban homes amply confirm Korean economic might, these same Goldstar TVs bring dramatic images of students clashing with riot police and of striking Hyundai workers.

Behind the economic growth and political democratization, there is another story to be told about South Korea. The present troubles stem from a legitimacy crisis accentuated by the military coup in 1961. Ever since, a spiral of repression and resistance has broadened and radicalized the opposition. Thus, the current crisis stems from decades of authoritarianism, pitting the massive repressive apparatus against an implacable opposition. The Legacy of the Military Coup

The April, or "Student," Revolution of 1960 toppled the corrupt, U.S.-backed Rhee Syngman regime, which had been in power since the division of the two Koreas in 1945. Rhee, despite his unassailable credentials as an independence fighter during Japanese colonial rule, never enjoyed widespread popularity. The sweeping land reform, in the context of rampant peasant uprisings and the Korean War,

[John Lie, a Korean-born sociologist, teaches at the University of Oregon. He thanks 1. Aaugh,J.B. Foster, and M.S. Yim for their help.] had destroyed his most stalwart support: the traditional ruling class of landowners. Rhee relied instead on U.S. support and' his control over state bureaucracies and the repressive institutions, especially the police and the military. Recurrent electoral frauds and pervasive corruption disgusted urban high school and university students, who galvanized revolts by the small urban middle class which led to the downfall of the Rhee regime.'

In the brief democratic interregnum, party politicians bickered and students staged daily demonstrations. This groping for parliamentary democracy was quashed by Park Chung Hee's military coup in 1961.

The new, professionalized military which Park personified was a product of Rhee's reliance on force and the United States, especially its military aid. But Park lacked support outside his base in the military. The 1963 election, despite the disorganized and under-funded opposition, resulted in only a narrow victory. The absence of middle class support plagued Park's regime, especially the continuing opposition from the student movement. Yet the call for democracy and the peaceful unification of the two Koreas remained restricted to urban areas in a predominantly agrarian country. The opposition, strong enough to bring down a government, was not strong enough to take power.

Park's strategy to maintain power was to develop and consolidate the repressive state apparatus on the one hand and to pursue economic growth on the other, using the rhetoric of anti-communism with the stick of repression and the rhetoric of economic nationalism with the carrot of economic growth. Park sought to achieve political stability under the tutelage of U.S. Cold War policy. Park's ideal for Korea was prewar Japan, where he was trained: authoritarian politics and heavy industrialization in a disciplined, militarized society.2

Park consolidated his rule by concentrating repressive institutions and manipulating potential opposition. He augmented the police and the military and created the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), which soon mushroomed into the single largest organization in Korean society, building widespread networks of agents and informants. Yet Kim Jong-Pil, the architect of KCIA, was repeatedly purged and rehabilitated at Park's behest, as Park aimed his divideand-conquer strategy at trusted insiders as well as outsiders. Park also extended his influence over the ideological state apparatuses, the schools and the mass media. …

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