Korea's Democracy after the Cheonan Incident: The Military, the State, and Civil Society under the Division System

By Suh, Jae-Jung | Asian Perspective, April-June 2015 | Go to article overview

Korea's Democracy after the Cheonan Incident: The Military, the State, and Civil Society under the Division System


Suh, Jae-Jung, Asian Perspective


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

THE CHEONAN INCIDENT-THE SINKING OF A SOUTH KOREAN NAVAL ship on March 26, 2010, resulting in the death of forty-six sailors-was not only a military affair but also a barometer of the current status and future prospects of Korea's democracy. From a military perspective, the incident involved a serious breach of national security because the ship sank near the northern maritime border with North Korea. The incident gradually unfolded into an emotionally gripping drama as it was followed by drawn-out rescue attempts, salvage operations, and finally a forensic analysis. Eventually it grew to become one of the most contentious political issues in Korea's recent history as the government mobilized its power to defend its position while the public raised many ques- tions and doubts about the incident's handling. The simmering political contention boiled over after a government-appointed investigation team concluded that a North Korean torpedo caused the sinking. The Lee Myung-bak administration took retaliatory measures that included a decision, known as the "5-24 measures," to cease all inter-Korean exchanges. The public vigorously challenged the government on its conclusion and responses, and the government responded with legal and extralegal measures to silence critical voices. What began as a ship's sinking was thus transformed into a tug of war between the government and civil society, as well as a test of the health of Korea's democracy.

In this article, I assess the limits and strength of Korea's democracy revealed through the events surrounding the Cheonan incident. My purpose is not to demonstrate contradictions in the May 20, 2010, report by the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) or to investigate the cause of the sinking.1 Instead, I aim to assess the limits and strengths of Korea's democracy by reviewing political developments related to the incident. First, I examine the process of the Cheonan investigation to see how Korea's democracy worked on an organizational level. Second, I analyze the functioning of the political system throughout the Cheonan incident with a view toward assessing the state of Korea's democracy in terms of republican principles and procedural democracy. Third, I analyze civil society in order to gauge the significance of the public sphere and deliberative democracy. I conclude with an overall assessment of democracy in Korea.

The State of Democracy in Korea

The reactions of the South Korean government and civil society to the sinking of the Cheonan corvette revealed strengths and weaknesses of Korea's democracy. Just as the state of democracy showed signs of both consolidation and failings, so is the scholarship divided between consolidation and underinstitutionalization theses. One body of literature convincingly shows that Korea has consolidated its democracy by changes of government through competitive elections and by establishing the rule of law on democratic principles (Alagappa 1995; Im 2010). Other analysts show that Korea's democratization has been stricken by underinstitutionalization of democratic governance and the growth of socioeconomic disparities (Diamond and Kim 2000; Choi 2005; Shin 2012). I argue that politics after the Cheonan incident not only showed aspects of democratic consolidation and underinstitutionalization, they also revealed the structural constraints on democracy imposed by Korea's division and the resiliency of civil society.

First, the incident laid bare a latent structural constraint imposed on the South's democracy by the division of the Korean peninsula. The incident showed that a political cleavage created in response to the existence of the North could be brought to the fore by a national security threat treated in a way that compromised, or even suspended, some democratic principles (Choi 1993). Democratization in the South carries a seed of its own deformation in what Paik Nak-chung calls the "division system" (Paik 2011, 4- 8). …

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