[Column]South Koreans’ push for a freer country yields benefits

Posted on : 2021-02-21 09:44 KST Modified on : 2021-02-21 09:44 KST
Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Ramon Pacheco Pardo

By Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and associate professor of International Relations at King’s College London

In recent days, South Korea has received two welcome pieces of news from outside. To begin with, The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked it as a full democracy, a distinction it had last received in 2014. Meanwhile, Bloomberg has named South Korea the most innovative country in the world, a position it has lost the year before.

South Koreans should thank their ongoing push to build a freer country for this welcome news.

If there is one thing that has defined South Korea since its transition to democracy, it has been a relentless drive to move away from the rigid structure of the past. Up until the late 1980s, Confucian-based ideas about the relationship between government and the people or within one’s family remained predominant. Some may argue that this helped South Korea insofar as it allowed for catch-up development to take place.

But the flip side was the repression of dissenting voices and an economy based on copying what others had done. Also, governmental and business elites inhabited a parallel world, with them at the top and the rest of society at the bottom. This was no formula to unleash the thirst for freedom and creativity that many South Koreans were already displaying by the 1970s.

Today, South Korea has become a country where its leaders know that they have to be accountable. And they know that they have to deliver, or else. Take the nepotism, abrasive behavior, and general disregard for the presidency that Donald Trump displayed for four years in the United States. Trump’s actions would bring severe consequences to any South Korean president. South Koreans would be on the streets, and rightly so. They are unafraid to speak truth to power.

In the United States, however, Trump completed his four-year mandate and survived an impeachment vote while in office. Demonstrations against his government were few and far between. It is no surprise that the United States ranks lower than South Korea in terms of the quality of its democracy. Its president can get away with things that cannot happen in South Korea.

Indeed, the quality of the institutions serving South Koreans and their democracy has been improving over time. Debates in the National Assembly can sometimes be raucous. But clearly, politicians impassionedly sharing their views is better than the opposition being silenced. And South Koreans may sometimes complain about all-powerful prosecutors or judges who are too lenient with their sentences. But the World Justice Project places South Korea among the countries with the strongest rule of law in the world.

There is a good reason why a growing number of international media are increasing their presence in Seoul. They believe in the quality of South Korean democracy, sometimes more than South Koreans themselves.

A more democratic South Korea is good for the country’s economy. South Korea needs to innovate to remain competitive. Whether it is Samsung or LG setting up units for their employees to imagine new products or an entrepreneur setting up shop in Teheran-ro or Daedeok Innopolis to build his or her own start-up, innovation has to be at the heart of the South Korean economy. And it is strong democracies that are better at creating the conditions for their citizens to challenge the status quo and dream of new ideas. This is why South Koreans’ pressure for a better democracy is crucial for the country’s economy to thrive.

Critics will argue that the quality of South Korean democratic institutions is far from perfect. Or they might believe that its economy is not as modern as that of, say, Germany, Japan or the United States.

Even if this were true, it does not detract from the fact that South Korean political and economic fundamentals are in a better shape today than they were before. And also that South Korean political and business elites have no option but to ensure that they create the conditions for the country to continue to thrive. South Koreans expect this and will demand change if necessary.

Today, a more democratic, innovative South Korea is well-placed to look at the future with hope and optimism. A freer country is good for politics and business.

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

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

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