[Column] Economic development isn’t a guarantee for democracy

Posted on : 2020-11-11 17:32 KST Modified on : 2020-11-11 17:32 KST
All around the world, we see prosperous countries ruled by illiberal or authoritarian regimes
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung

The more I see what’s happening in the world nowadays, the less confidence I have in the myth that democracy is the inevitable result of modern society’s economic development. According to this myth, once industrialization lifts the per capita national income to a certain level, modernized masses demand democracy and eventually get it.

The sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset (1922-2006) argued in 1959 that there was a causal relationship between rising income and democracy. His hypothesis that democracy develops when societies become modern and wealthy long stood as conventional wisdom in academia.

But recently, I’ve come to the painful awareness that this hypothesis doesn’t correspond with the facts.

First, the richest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita (based on purchasing power parity, or PPP) include Qatar, which is an absolute monarchy, and Singapore, which is technically a democracy but effectively an authoritarian state. In fact, some analysts even argue that record wealth gives authoritarian governments more resources to distribute, sapping the energy behind democratization movements.

Second, when we examine countries in the same region, authoritarian states are often richer than democratic states. For example, long-standing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban prefers illiberal democracy and says he’s learning from China. But Hungary’s per capita income is somewhat higher than its more democratic neighbor of Slovakia. In East Asia, where Korea is located, China, with its one-party state, has a per capita GDP (PPP) of US$17,000, much higher than Mongolia (US$12,000), despites its stronger multi-party system.

Third, as we’ve seen in the US under Donald Trump, even countries with a long and mature democratic tradition are gradually showing more overtly authoritarian tendencies. The big shift of the neoliberal era is not democratization but de-democratization, regardless of the scale of economic growth.

S. Korea has remained democratic, but how long can it last?

In light of such trends, Korea’s successful democratization looks less predictable, more the exception than the rule. Why did South Korea move toward democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, unlike Singapore? And how did Korea succeed at re-democratization amid the global trend of de-democratization, toppling the corrupt administration of Park Geun-hye in 2017, unlike its neighbor Japan, where the single-party rule of far-right conservatives has actually been further consolidated?

Indeed, Korea’s democracy has been further reinforced in recent years, contrasting with the regression or complete absence of democracy in the US, China, Japan, and Russia. For us to understand the conditions under which Korean democracy can be maintained in the future, we need an accurate assessment of the impetus behind democratization in 1987 and behind re-democratization in 2017.

The lack of redistribution schemes led to Korean democratization movements

Broadly speaking, democratization in 1987 was driven by the two fatal flaws of the military junta ruling the country: namely, its lack of national legitimacy and its lack of a policy of redistribution. The Chun Doo-hwan regime massacred its own citizens under the protective shield of the US, in contrast with the single-party state of China, which has continued to flaunt its ability to stand up to the global hegemon of the US.

In addition, Korea under the Chun regime was a veritable wasteland for welfare and redistribution, while Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party ran public health insurance and pension plans and Singapore’s People’s Action Party operated a public housing system. South Korea’s national health insurance and national pension schemes were made universal after 1987 by the Roh Tae-woo administration as it sought to appease public wrath.

To a lesser degree, the corrupt conservative administrations that were in power from 2008 to 2017 also exhibited the same problems. Lee Myung-bak’s subservience to the US early in his presidency provoked resistance in the form of Korea’s first candlelight protests in 2008.

The comfort women agreement that Park Geun-hye reached with Japan in 2015, ignoring human rights and historical pain, put a considerable dent in her approval rating. Polls showed overwhelming support for scrapping or renegotiating the agreement, which was supported by between 60% and 75% of the public, depending on the poll.

Even as these corrupt administrations groveled before the US and Japan, they showed little interest in redistributing wealth for their own citizens. While public welfare spending as a share of GDP rose from around 8% at the beginning of the Lee administration to 10% at the end of the Park administration, that fell far short of the welfare required by an aging society with an abysmally low birthrate. The record-setting corruption and ineptitude of those administrations ultimately led to their collapse and to Korea’s re-democratization.

The Park administration’s corruption and incompetence were the primary cause of the popular rage that exploded in the candlelit rallies. But more fundamentally, protesters wanted Korea’s sovereignty to be reinforced and public livelihood to be stabilized through redistribution and protections for workers and the rest of the masses.

Moderates on both sides need to secure positions in center for democracy to prevail

If those two desires are satisfied, moderate conservativism and moderate liberalism can solidify their positions at the center of Korean politics, reinforcing democracy that can be robust over a long period of time. But if the current liberal administration is unable to score highly on those two issues, it’s fully possible that the far right will once again seize power and erode the foundations of democracy.

Seeing the frenzied rise of far-right populism in the US (which is similar to Korea in several respects) and the far-right neo-nationalists’ sustained grip on power in Japan drives home the plausibility of such a scenario.

Inequality in S. Korea-US alliance

By virtue of the ROK-US alliance, there’s an inherent lack of equality in South Korea’s relationship with the US. From the outset, and in every respect, it’s a relationship between guardian and ward.

But inside that framework, it’s entirely possible to take action to establish sovereignty that can win the support of the masses. South Korea can increase humanitarian aid, person-to-person exchange, and cultural exchange with the North where it’s not forbidden by UN sanctions, and it can express its commitment to peaceful coexistence more forcefully, even amid adversity. In the same way, a South Korean declaration that it won’t join various counterproductive schemes to counter and encircle China would be one way to stake out our sovereignty.

Need for more comprehensive welfare state

There’s also an urgent need for a long-term roadmap for the construction of a comprehensive welfare state. The current administration has promised to increase coverage of national health insurance to 70% by 2022. But what we really need is a long-term vision for when and how we’ll achieve the ideal of free healthcare, which is already provided by most countries at a similar economic level as Korea, such as Italy and Slovenia.

And since the coronavirus has awakened us to the importance of state-run medical services, we also need a concrete vision for when and how we can raise the current percentage of hospital beds at state-run hospitals from the current level of 10%, among the lowest in the world, to at least 30%.

Along with leveling universities and providing free education, the critical goal of the Korean welfare state project is building a country where people don’t have to worry about the financial consequences of getting sick. If the liberals who are currently in power fail to assert sovereignty or set forth such a project, we run the risk of someday seeing the return of a corrupt government.

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

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

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