Democracy in Korea

April 3, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno

Democracy in Korea is only 21 years old.    The contrast between a thousand years of monarchy, 40 years of colonial control, 20 years of dictatorship and 20 years of democracy was made vividly real for me this week.

First, I went to a presentation on the Gwangju uprisings in 1980.  In 1979 Korea’s second President and first dictator was assassinated.  Hopes for democratic change swept the country and were rapidly put down by the third President Chun Doo-hwan, a military general.  Students in southern Korea refused to stop protesting for greater democracy and the army massacred an unknown number of people.  Students, women, children, bystanders, the elderly - everyone was a target, and therefore most people joined the protests.  Eventually the town was placed under army rule.  Since all of this was done with the knowledge, if not permission, of American authorities, residents of Gwangju remain actively anti-American.  They had hoped for support for a new democracy and did not receive it.

Gyeongbokgung Royal RoadSecond, I went to one of Seoul’s many palaces.  The English language tour guide regularly reminded us that Korea is now a democracy.  “Here we are walking on the royal road,” she told us.  “In the Joseon dynasty, only the king could walk on the central part.  Commoners had to walk on the sides.  However, we are now a democracy, so you can walk on the central part since in Korea the people are kings.”  Later we came to a doorway called “doorway of prayers for long life.” The guide informed us that “Once this doorway was used only by royalty.  That is why it is so tall, since only royalty did not need to bow before entering.  However, in a democracy no one bows so you can all walk through the tall doorway and pray for your own long life.”  What a vivid reminder of the power of the people in a democracy!

Third, Korea is in the middle of its Parliamentary election campaigning.  The election is April 9.  This is a hotly watched contest since originally the GNP (the President’s party) was expected to win easily, but now the opposition party has a good chance to prevent a sweep.  Yet most of the people I know are remarkably indifferent about the elections.  Voter turnout is expected to hit an all-time low.  A sense that politicians are corrupt, that they do not represent the average voter, that only the wealthy can really run, that candidates are out of touch with daily reality, that there is no “good” candidate to vote for - all of these seem to be depressing voters and voter turnout. 

In thirty years, Korea has gone from literally battling for democracy to being proud of having it to being disillusioned by its less than perfect form.  I have asked dozens of people whether they think President Lee Myung-bak (criticized by some for being too authoritarian) could lead a slide back to dictatorship.  Everyone agrees: “No, democracy is too entrenched here now.”  But democracy requires an active, educated, engaged citizenship, vigilant in keeping an eye on its own best interests.  I am struck by how quickly Korea has reached America’s levels of disenchantment, frustration, and unwillingness to participate.  Perhaps we will be able to learn from however they deal with the isssue. 

Entry Filed under: politics, History, Culture

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