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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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There are many different types of democracies around the world and differing interpretations of what a democracy should look like and how it should work. Most commonly seen are representative democracies, where voters elect representatives to vote in their interests like the British parliamentary system, or presidential democracies like the United States, also referred to as a “liberal” democracy. “Liberalism” can be defined as an ideology that places priority on individual political and economic freedoms, “favoring them over any attempts to create economic equality”. (O’Neil, Fields, & Share, 31) Not all liberal democracies look the same, and nations are often judged by how “liberal” they are. Large-scale democracies present the challenge of serving the needs of a nation that is growing in diversity and whose values change over time. Robert Dahl argues that a large-scale democracy requires the following political institutions: elected officials; free, fair, and frequent elections; freedom of expression; alternative sources of information; associational autonomy; and inclusive citizenship. (Dahl, introduction) I will be using Robert Dahl’s model, and the list of “the 6 institutions of a polyarchal democracy” to compare the United States government to South Korea’s.

The nation of South Korea is rated by the Freedom House Index of Economic Freedom as “Free”, and has a score of 84/100 on their website. This is a stellar rating from Freedom House, and in terms of political rights and civil liberties both categories are rated as a 2/7, 1 being “Most Free”, but how has their democracy developed since its birth?

South Korea, also known as the Republic of Korea, occupies the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula and is bordered by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more notably known as North Korea. These two East Asian Republic’s once formed one nation. The nation of Korea as a whole lived for centuries, with Japan hoping to conquer its peoples, and keep their nation within Japan’s sphere of power. Its ports were always sought after, and eventually violently overtaken. The fight for democracy in Korea has been a long one, but South Korea is now as close to the ideal as it’s ever been.

To look at the developments of democracy in South Korea, one must first look at the geopolitical movements of East Asia, and the treatment of the nation of Korea by larger imperialistic powers. The first Opium War (1839–1842), also referred to as the beginning of Modern China’s history, opened up East Asia to unfair treatment by the British Empire, and set a precedent for how these nations were to be treated by imperialist powers.  From the West, the American Naval Commander Matthew C. Perry pressured Japan to open its ports to western trade in 1854, using “gunboat diplomacy”, a tactic Japan would later use to open up ports in Korea.

Humiliated by unequal treaties by Americans and confident that it could become a powerful imperial power, Japan experienced a rapid transformation, changing from a feudal society into a modern industrialized state. In 1876, Japan employed this “gunboat diplomacy” to force Korea to sign the unequal Japan-Korea Treaty, which gave territorial rights to Japanese citizens in Korea and forced the Korean government to open 3 ports to Japan. This treaty made Korea incredibly vulnerable to the influence of imperialist powers, and this treaty later led Korea to be annexed by Japan in 1910 after the Russo-Japanese war. Frederick Arthur McKenzie, a Canadian journalist who was in Korea during the time of Japanese rule writes in “Korea’s Fight for Freedom” that the Japanese “attempted to turn the people of Korea into Japanese--an inferior brand of Japanese, a serf race, speaking the language and following the customs of their overlords, and serving them.” (McKenzie, Preface, Para. 5) This treaty is very similar to the treaty that was signed by the Japanese when confronted by American imperialists demanding ports for trade.

Korean resistance grew after the annexation by Japan in 1910, and on March 1st, 1919 the Samil Independence Movement began a series of demonstrations in Seoul, the Korean Capital. Interestingly enough, this resistance movement was inspired by American leadership. The Samil Movement was a reaction to the repressive nature of colonial occupation under the military rule of the Japanese Empire, and its founders were inspired by American President Woodrow Wilson’s "Fourteen Points”, stated at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, which outlined the right of national "self-determination". The United States shares a similar history, in that the organization of the First Continental Congress, the assembly composed of delegates from the founding 13 colonies, was called in response to British repressive rule. Before the Japanese suppressed the movement 12 months later, “approximately 2,000,000 Koreans had participated in the more than 1,500 demonstrations. About 7,000 people were killed by the Japanese police and soldiers, and 16,000 were wounded.” (Britannica) Despite their peaceful efforts, the Koreans were brutally defeated and silenced by Japanese police. Although this movement did not grant Korea independence, it did strengthen national unity and give the Korean people a voice once again. The 13 American Colonies were also defeated by the larger and more powerful British Army in the American Revolution (1775-83), but were more fortunate than the Koreans, and were granted independence by Britain.

The nation of Korea was divided after World War II, after escalating Cold War antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union ended up forming two different governments, with differing ideologies in 1948. In the South, Syngham Rhee, backed and appointed by United States as head of the provisional government won the first presidential election of the newly established South Korea. In the North, Kim Sun II-sung was appointed premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by the Soviet Union. Both leaders fought to unify the nation under their own rule. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and began the first Cold War era’s major conflict, the Korean War, which continued until 1953. The 1953 armistice was never signed by South Korea, meaning the two neighboring countries are still technically at war. “...the armistice agreement was never replaced by a peace treaty. The result is an inherently anti-democratic political regime on either side. “ (Nak-Chung, abstract)

Political instability has followed since then, but South Korea has certainly grown into a more democratic regime. South Korea uses a Presidential system like the United States, their president serves a term of 5 years, and a 300 member unicameral national assembly is elected every 4 years through a combination of direct and indirect elections. In 2016 the sitting President of South Korea was impeached, charged, and detained for accusations of corruption and bribery. Still, the nation of South Korea does fulfill Dahl’s first item necessary for a polyarchal democracy, “elected officials; & free, fair, and frequent elections”. Most nations have at least one political leader with corruption scandals placed against them, but it is promising that the South Korean government prosecuted their president for doing so, due to the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act, which went into force in 2016. However, this did raise questions of transparency between government officials and business conglomerates.

Further down Dahl’s list, freedom of religious and political expression is permitted in South Korea, however, there are legal bans on pro-North Korean activities. For example, the Constitutional court once had to legally dissolve a political party in 2014- the Progressive Party - for violations of this “National Security Law.” North Korean radio and news is also forbidden.

South Korea shares another similarity with the United States when discussing opportunities for various segments of society and their electoral opportunities. “Although ethnic minority citizens enjoy full political rights under the law, they rarely win political representation... Women also enjoy legal equality but remain underrepresented, with just 17 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Conservative Christian groups have used their political influence to prevent legislators from adopting stronger laws that would protect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people from discrimination.” (Freedom House, South Korea) Same-sex marriage is not legal in South Korea, and transgender peoples are not specifically protected from social discrimination, so “freedom of expression” is not completely guaranteed.

In comparison, the United States has received a freedom house ranking of 86/100. The United States is stated to be slightly more free than the nation of South Korea, but why? Both nations possess the 6 political institutions required for a large-scale democracy, as described by Robert Dahl. So what makes the United States “a more free democratic nation”?

The United States is commonly referred to as “the world’s oldest existing democracy” , and it is true that the United States Constitution and ideals of “natural and inalienable rights” have influenced democracies around the world, but as of recent, the United States reputation of effective democratic institutions has lessened, given the nature of the most recent presidential election. Amid allegations of Russian interference, the current sitting President has also “defied ethical standards observed by his recent predecessors, for instance by retaining and promoting his private business empire while in office, naming his daughter and son-in-law as presidential advisers, and refusing to divulge his tax records.” (Freedom House, United States) These rumors of Russian interference in the 2016 election do seem to hold some weight, as the sitting president fired the FBI director and leader of the investigation of the “Russian investigation” leading many in the nation to distrust the fairness of their voting system. Should this turn out to be true, this directly goes against #2 on Dahl’s list, the requirement for “Free, fair and frequent elections”.

Furthermore, it is debated whether or not the Electoral College system in the United States is democratic, as it makes it so that not every single vote carries the same weight. In this category, it could be argued that South Korea is perhaps more democratic for this reason alone. The electoral college system made it possible that the current sitting president of the United States won the election, despite having nearly 3 million votes less than the Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton. (Peters, Woolley)

In regards to the last items on Dahl’s list,  “alternative sources of information; associational autonomy; and inclusive citizenship”, both nations allow freedom of the press and associational autonomy. South Korea and the United States both have multiple political parties, typically dominated by the two largest parties, the Republican Party and Democratic Party in the U.S., and in South Korea the Democratic Party of Korea, and the conservative Liberty Korea Party, both of which switch in power often.  “Inclusive citizenship” refers to every citizen permanently residing in the country’s right to participate in the other 5 institutions. Forbidding their citizens from North Korean radio and news is an infringement on “alternative sources of information”, therefore their citizenship cannot be entirely inclusive. The United States does allow freedom of the press and freedom for their citizens to choose which media outlets they engage with, but the current sitting president has made many remarks which reflect a bias toward certain media outlets, and maintained a “drumbeat of attacks on individual journalists and established outlets, describing them as—among other things—the “enemy of the American people.”” (Freedom House) This does infringe upon the right to alternative sources of information, eroding away the democratic ideals aforementioned by Dahl.  Furthermore, recent statements made by the United States president that were “widely considered offensive to Latinos, Muslims, and women, among others,” (Freedom House, United States) have made segments of the nation feel as though their rights will not be protected under the current administration. Occurrences like this defy Dahl’s requirement of “inclusive citizenship”, and without succeeding in providing the bare minimum for a polyarchal democracy, how can the United States ever dream of fully reaching the ideal of a perfect democracy?

 “Although other factors were often at work, the six political institutions of polyarchal democracy came about, in part at least, in response to demands for inclusion and participation in political life.” (Dahl, 3) Through means of revolution, resistance, and an overwhelming desire for a place to be free, the United States and South Korea can now be defined as democratic regimes. They hold free, mostly fair, and frequent elections, allow freedom of expression; provide alternative sources of information; allow associational autonomy and, so far, include all of their citizens in these institutions. Though the nation of South Korea is young, especially compared to the United States who’s birth dates back to 1776, I believe that they are both democratic nations with promising futures, so long as both continue to practice inclusive citizenship, especially regarding protections towards minority segments of society, like transgender peoples and ethnic minorities.

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