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Political Change in South Korea

Political Change in South Korea
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South Korea’s political change and search for democracy in the late 1980s represents one of the most significant and dramatic political events in Korea’s modern history.

The Koreans are an ancient people with a long recorded history and traditional culture. Nicknamed by the Westerners as the Hermit Kingdom, the Koreans enjoyed a long period of relative internal peace and stability with a developed culture based on Confucianism. Since the end of the nineteenth century, however, Korea has been exposed to outside forces–emanating largely from the arrival of Westerners–and the country has gone through drastic political changes and rapid socio-economic modernization.

In the preceding one hundred years three major international wars were waged for control of the Korean Peninsula. These include the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and the Korean War of 1950-53, which were all fought on Korean soil to determine the status of Korea in the major powers rivalry and in the balance of power system of Northeast Asia.

The old kingdom of the Yi dynasty fell in 1910, and the country was forcefully placed under Japan as a colony of the Japanese empire. In 1945, with the defeat of Japan in World War II, the Korean people regained sovereignty and welcomed the victorious allied powers as the national liberators of Korea. The country was placed under separate allied occupation forces with the Soviet Red Army north of the 38th parallel and the American military forces south of the 38th parallel. The establishment of separate governments and regimes in the respective halves of divided Korea in 1948 led to the onset of the Korean War on June 25,1950. The Korean War, first begun as a civil war, evolved into an international war involving outside powers mainly the United States and China.

The Koreans’ ardent desire and demand for democracy are embedded in the contemporary belief and value systems of the many Korean elites. The Koreans are a highly educated and intelligent people. They are strong in the work ethic, possibly a legacy of the traditional Confucian culture. Although South Korea has been highly successful in the current drive toward industrialization, the impact of the rapid socio-economic changes through urbanization and industrialization tend to undermine the country’s traditional social structure, values, and institutions.

The reality of South Korea’s ‘economic miracle’ is now widely recognized. The possibility of South Korea’s attaining democracy, reflected in the recent series of political changes and developments, is a hopeful sign in Korean politics today. If successful, the Korean “political miracle” and “economic miracle” will enable South Korea to earn the coveted status and recognition as an advanced developed country in the post-1988 Seoul Olympics era.

Koreans are generally regarded as more individualistic and rambunctious than their Japanese and Chinese neighbors; they are easy to get to know as people and are also, as a rule, open and outgoing. In this sense the Koreans are often regarded as the “Irish of the Orient”; the Koreans are individualistic and contentious but they are also volatile in their political attitudes and behaviors.

The movement toward political change and democratization has been occurring over the past several years but the direct election of the president on December 16, 1987 and the subsequent inauguration of President Roh Tae-woo has greatly improved the possibility of further political change and democratization of South Korea. On February 23, 1988 history was made in the constitutional annals of South Korea. On this day the first peaceful and orderly transition of power took place, from Chun Doo-hwan to Roh Tae-woo, and the Sixth Republic was officially born without bloodshed.

Distancing itself from the leadership style of Chun Doo-hwan, the leadership of the Sixth Republic is moving toward pluralism and democratization, creating an image of the President Roh as a “common man” who is accessible to the Korean people. When addressing the new president, the subordinates in the Blue House, the presidential palace, no longer use “His Excellency” and Roh has encouraged the presidential staff to open the presidential palace so the public may have access to him.

This book explores the impact these changes in leadership style will have on South Korea’s continuing rise to economic power, student unrest, reunification with North Korea, as well as local elections and how these events will test the degree of political change to which the new leadership is committed.

ILPYONG J. KIM is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs and is a past president of the New England Conference of the Association for Asian Studies. He is an active contributor in Asian Studies for the American Political Science Association and is the author of several books including The Politics of Chinese Communism: Kiansi Under the Soviets, Communist Politics in North Korea, and Development and Cultural Change: Cross-Cultural Perspectives.

YOUNG WHAN KIHL is a professor at Iowa State University, where he teaches international politics and comparative Asian politics. He is the author of numerous studies on the Korean peninsula.

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