Korea: Incomplete Democracy and Unquiet Society

Korea: Incomplete Democracy and Unquiet Society

During more than 30 years after Korean War, the “Hermit Kingdom” has been an authoritarian dictatorship, which suffered military repression and witnessed sometimes violent contests. Its conversion to democracy took place about thirty years from now, but many Korean people say that democracy remains incomplete and, in particular, political ruling class as a whole is still not equal to the task. There is like a contradiction between its prosperous economic and its unachieved democracy. This creates concerns and dissatisfactions within the society.

Pr. Lee Chung-hee, from Hankuk University and chairman of an independent body, after describing the Korean political stage, states that Korean people are not satisfied with present political offer and ask both more leadership and more democracy. According to him, democratic process is still ongoing and there are too much links between business circles and politicians, which create corruption. Some civic groups have pointed out those failures and it is National Election Commission’s role to control them. Some intellectuals, but not enough, are also involved in political sphere. Political class level has been enhanced but remains insufficient. We must also give more power to the Parliament that must better control the executive, but the MPs shall also conquer their independence towards their political parties. Those problems increase society’s de-politicization. He also considers that one shall strengthen decentralization, but local politicians are also too much subjugated to their parties. Trade unions must acquire negotiation culture instead of confrontation. Transparency shall become Korean politics’ key word.

Pr. Park Jai-chang, influential adviser to the conservative party, assesses that understanding of present political situation requires historical analysis. Strong centralization and difficulty to dialog are anchored in Korean culture. But now citizens are yearning for more decentralization and participation to the political decisions. Another difficulty lies on the importance of old cleavages within the society. Cold War and division between the two Koreas also play a role. We must not forget that Korean War creates 3 million casualties. The very existence of a totalitarian neighbor explains as well why 30% of Korean people vote for the conservatives. Then, whereas democracy is based on individualism, family is a core value in Korea. In his opinion, Korean people have more than others a perception of long period of time. “Familism” is key concept to understand present Korean society, including segregation phenomena that explain difficulty to obtain consensus. According to him, in Korea and in other countries, we are moving from a model of society to another and we haven’t found yet the good paradigm. However, it’s obvious that traditional political parties and majority rule won’t be recognized as they were before.

Moon Si-yeun, dean of Korean Cultural Institute at Sookmyung Women University, considers that the two traditional opposite models, advocating democracy and economic development, still divide Korean people. We are witnessing the same –mostly social‑ division within Seoul. Korean society is competition society, but it is reluctant to accept differences. One assesses less people than results. She states that there is a true vulnerability within this society, but Koreans have no real choice than being always more competitive and innovative. Regarding the plan for « creative economy », its outcome will come only from SMEs. We must also notice, especially as far as marriage and women’s role is concerned, importance of Korean conservatism, even if new generation is slowly moving forward.

Cheon Soo-bok, sociologist and writer, deplores political consciousness’ decline in Korea. Citizens groups are ephemeral rather than enrooted in society. In his opinion, international competition ideology dominates and there is few critical thinking and debates. Intellectual stage is separated from public world and mass-media are more important than NGOs. Intellectual work is doomed to be lonely. It will take time for Korean society to get rid of Confucian tradition’s weight. However, in the same time, Korea is tolerant towards the various religions and actually doesn’t witness foreigners’ hatred. According to him civil society’s strengthening and free media are priorities. This civil society must nurture political world. Students shall also learn to think more by themselves and education must give them intellectual resources to do so more than purely managerial mind. We must them break this hierarchical spirit which begin at the age of three and is permanent until university years. He also notices that three university have quite the monopoly for recruiting for the higher positions in all fields.

The discussion with two young professional ladies, Suzin Ahn et Kyung Hwa Byun, bring a concrete glance on Korean society seen from inside. They both highlight the importance of inequalities, the difficulty of daily-life for many youngsters, and a kind of oppression through conformism and fierce competition. The lack of independency, created by educational methods, is in their understanding very worrying. Confucian values are quite oppressive and society’s openness is purely superficial. In their opinion, the young people are as conservative as the elder, especially the men. Korean issue’s weight is also very decisive. Debates shall be less conventional and people do not express spontaneously their opinion. We definitively must favor expression of differences. We must not forget as well that this conservative Korean society also likes to have fun.