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[Kim Seong-kon] Democracy and the future of South Korea

By Korea Herald

Published : April 17, 2024 - 05:30

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There are a number of popular misconceptions about the meaning of democracy in Korea. Sometimes, we misunderstand democracy as merely “rule by the majority.” However, true democracy should also respect the opinions of the minority. Other times, we mistake democracy for the maxim that “we can do whatever we want to do.”

In a democratic system, people authorize their elected representatives to work on their behalf. Thus, we should not expect these representatives to ask for our consent or approval before they do anything. You also cannot force them to explain everything to you or communicate with you all the time because you elected them to “represent” you. In South Korea, however, people strongly demand their representatives to do all these things.

Dictionaries define “democracy” as “a system in which state power is vested in the people who elect their representatives through elections.” The problem with the above definition is that even authoritarian countries can claim that they are democratic countries because they always use "the people" as excuses or propaganda and put on a show of holding elections. Stalin once said, “The people who cast votes don’t decide elections, the people who count the votes do.”

For a long time, America has been undisputedly the foremost country of democracy together with the UK. As a result, both countries have enjoyed admiration from many other countries as role models of democracy. On the contrary, South Korea suffered a military dictatorship for a quarter of a century until 1987.

According to the recent Economist Democracy Index, however, South Korea is now a “full democracy” ranking 22nd, whereas the US ranks 29th as a “flawed democracy.” Looking at the Index, South Koreans must be excited and proud that their country has surpassed America, especially in democracy, in such a short span of time, and on the contrary, Americans must be appalled and experience a blow to their pride as their country falls into the category of a flawed democracy.

For some reason, however, both South Korea and America have remained calm since The Economist released the Democracy Index. Perhaps South Koreans think that they deserve to be in the top 10, not 22nd, or, to the contrary, that their country does not yet deserve the recognition, considering the country's problematic, embarrassing political climate. As for Americans, they may be confident that the US is still a leading country of democracy, even after the disgraceful Jan. 6 Capitol attack. If so, many Americans do not realize that the world is rapidly changing.

For the past two years, the South Korean National Assembly exerted tyranny by blocking the policies of the Yoon administration that required legislation. Indeed, the opposition party members behaved high-handedly to incapacitate the government. Such a disgraceful phenomenon would not happen in a truly democratic country.

Strangely, however, about two-thirds of Korean voters chose the opposition party again in the National Assembly election last week. As a result, the opposition party could continue to debilitate the government until President Yoon’s presidency ends in 2027. To make matters worse, the opposition party has already declared that they would impeach the president and initiate special prosecutor investigations of the first lady and Han Dong-hoon, the second most powerful man among Yoon’s associates. Naturally, people are wondering, “Under the circumstances, what could the Yoon administration do from now on?”

Older conservatives lament the situation and reprimand those who voted for the Opposition Party thoughtlessly, “What have you done? Don’t you see the country is falling down?” Their fury and dismay is understandable. In fact, however, they do not need to be exasperated. If the people chose incorrectly, they will inevitably suffer the consequences. “You reap what you sow,” as the maxim says. The problem is that their wrong choice could victimize other innocent people who chose wisely. Another problem is that their wrong choice surely would ruin the country that their parents and grandparents have built at great sacrifice.

Experts foresee that if the South Korean government remains in a vegetative state for the next three years in this critical moment, it will be costly for the Korean people. The world is now in an unprecedented crisis, as authoritarian countries’ invasions and nuclear war threats are escalating, and the influence of the US as a counterpower is rapidly diminishing. In these difficult times, South Korea should take action quickly in order to survive the imminent international tsunami. If the government is unable to do anything due to the malicious hindrance of the National Assembly, South Korea will lose precious opportunities and may fall hopelessly.

These days, the world worries about the return of the era of Stalin and Hitler. Entering such an Orwellian nightmare landscape, we cannot afford to waste time with internal scuffles. They say democracy is declining all over the world, but South Korea must remain a country of true liberal democracy.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.