[Column] What makes a nation “advanced”?

Posted on : 2021-10-08 18:07 KST Modified on : 2021-10-08 18:07 KST
By many measures, South Korea is undeniably an “advanced” or “developed” country. But there is more to what that designation means
Park Kwon-il
Park Kwon-il

By Park Kwon-il, social critic

Korea is an “advanced” country. One glance at the size of its GDP and the success of K-pop and the Netflix series “Squid Game” can tell you as much. Koreans are even among the world’s top consumers of luxury goods. Just so my words aren’t misconstrued, I should say that I mean these things without cynicism or contempt. Material civilization improves the life expectancy and health of its members and plays a significant role in alleviating their average suffering. While this is important, it is not everything.

The late sociologist Ronald Inglehart and his colleagues said the richer people get, the more their interests shift from self-survival to "quality of life" and "deepening of democracy." Simply put, the growth of economic standards leads to rising consideration of others and generosity for the weak, as well as the boosting of internal democratic stability. To prove this, Inglehart and his peers observed these trends in many nations while conducting the World Values Survey in more than 100 countries for 40 years, calling it a "silent revolution."

The main interest of Inglehart and company was democracy. The deepening of democracy, namely the meaning of this term, referred to the transition from “formal democracy” to “effective democracy.” Under formal democracy, freedom and equality are superficially and institutionally guaranteed. Yet just because democracy is there in form does not mean that a given society is truly democratic. An effective democracy not only exists as a system but serves to allow individuals to enjoy freedom in their daily lives and equal respect. Several countries in the Nordic region and Western Europe that are commonly called "advanced” are seen to have high levels of effective democracy.

So what about South Korea? Korean pride in democratization is so strong that "K-democracy" is a term. Candlelight protests are considered a symbol of the high civic consciousness of Koreans. So has democracy in the country advanced? To borrow Inglehart’s term, has the country made the transition toward an effective democracy?

Regretfully, no. Korea is close to developed countries in Western Europe vis-a-vis formal democracy, but trails in measures of effective democracy and is further dropping in the standings. Korea’s rank is lower than both that of Japan and Taiwan based on a 2011 paper by Inglehart and John Welzel.

This research should not be taken as absolute truth, but has consistent criteria. Important factors in democracy are the value of self-expression and “elite integrity.” Self-expression as a value grows in post-industrial societies as evidenced by “bonds and generosity that transcend kinship and personal interests, longing for freedom, trust in others and greater interest in human problems as a whole.” Inglehart stresses acceptance of homosexuality as an indicator because of how closely it is linked with self-expression.

Yet according to a 2019 survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Korea was ranked 32nd out of 36 member countries in acceptance of homosexuality. Thus, unlike most countries, Korea has seen no substantial rise in such tolerance or trust despite its economic rise. The proverb “The storehouse is the starting point of generosity” apparently doesn’t apply in Korea.

The concept of integrity of the elite refers to how uncorrupt and pure society’s upper class is. Because the effective democracy index is based on a country’s formal democracy and such integrity, the latter is crucial to a nation’s level of democracy.

So how does Korea fare in this category? As many would guess, terribly. The real estate scandal in Seongnam’s Daejang neighborhood has reaffirmed just how thoroughly corrupt Korea's legal elite is. The OECD has occasionally warned of the “severe” corruption in the nation’s elite circles, but things remain unchanged. For this reason, it would be strange if Korea’s effective democratic index was any higher than it is.

Finally, meritocracy is worth discussing. The Korean version of this ideology has produced a fixation on unfairness and the turning of a blind eye to inequality. Koreans respond sensitively to fairness in the process of winning privileges but are surprisingly indifferent to the privileges themselves. But getting angry over corruption and injustice while leaving the privileges intact is like hoarding food in one place but complaining about bugs spoiling it. Is this why Korean society remains stuck in formal democratization and fails to advance toward socioeconomic democratization?

From the looks of it, Korea has a long way to go before it can remove the quotation marks around its “developed country" moniker.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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