Politics in the land of the three Kims

Mass Politics and Culture in Democratising Korea

November 12, 1999

Koreans often complain that no one takes much notice of their country unless it is in trouble: be it the Korean war half a century ago - and in a sense not yet over - or South Korea's near default and financial crisis in 1997-98. They have a point. What was, and will be again, the world's 11th largest economy deserves to be better known. Its successes include not only the astonishing ascent in one generation from poverty to mass consumerism, but also a more recent transition from military authoritarianism to democracy - including in 1997 the first election of an opposition president, the generals' long-time nemesis Kim Dae-jung.

This democratisation is the subject of Doh C. Shin's book. More precisely,it is about Korean attitudes to democratisation. We are in Richard Rose territory - the two have worked together - where political attitudes and behaviour are researched via stratified sample surveys.

Shin's database is a series of six such surveys carried out over South Korea's first decade of democratisation, 1988-97. Shin reports these amply: the book includes more than 100 tables and figures. His concern is not only to chart South Koreans' diverse perceptions of continuing political change, but also to situate the Korean case in the wider literature on democratisation elsewhere (such as eastern Europe and Latin America), where it has tended to be overlooked.

So far so good. This work will be a rich source for specialists and comparativists. Yet it sheds less light than one would hope on the key issues in South Korean politics. Why, in a mono-ethnic country, is political affiliation based largely on region rather than on ideology or policy? Why are political parties so shallow and fissiparous? (Confucianism is no answer: Taiwan is different.) Why were radical students so central to the struggle for democracy, and why have they vanished just when the "International Monetary Fund era" should have given them a new lease of life? Would Koreans like a stronger parliament and a weaker president, as much debated in Seoul? Why is it hard for younger leaders to emerge to challenge the three Kims: president Dae-jung, ex-president Young-sam and premier Jong-pil? Has local democracy made any difference?

By contrast, Shin operates mostly at a more abstract level as he seeks to measure degrees of commitment to democratisation. This may facilitate international comparisons of a rather formalistic kind, but at the cost of eliding much of Korea's specificity. Readers new to Korea will also not be helped by an ahistorical approach that begins the story only in 1980 - by which date a state founded in 1948 was already on its Fifth Republic. A useful complement here is Geir Helgesen's Democracy and Authority in Korea (1998), which although based on a more slender survey offers non-Koreans a far richer sense of South Korean political culture.

Now it is all change in Seoul yet again. Despite his populist past, Kim Dae-jung has become a born-again free marketeer, implementing structural adjustment with skill and gusto. At one level, "Thatcherism with Korean characteristics" completely changes the political context; yet in other ways it is the same old game, and certainly the same ageing cast.

Shin's next book, he tells us, will be on the politics of economic crisis. That is a fascinating topic. I just hope that this time he asks his sample a few more and meatier questions.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea, University of Leeds.

Mass Politics and Culture in Democratising Korea

Author - Doh C. Shin
ISBN - 0 521 65146 8 and 65823 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 335

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