South Korea’s Democracy Challenge

Political System, Political Economy, and Political Society

by Hannes B. Mosler (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 224 Pages
Series: Research on Korea, Volume 10


Thirty years have passed since in 1987 formal democratization was achieved in South Korea. Since then the country has undergone the two turnover test (Huntington), and it overcame economic, financial, and political crises. However, social inequality is higher than before democratization, social conflict has been exacerbating, and political polarization has been on the rise. South Korea’s democracy has been going through a continuous stress test trying the polity’s capacity to heal social conflict, integrate society, and mature politics as meeting these challenges is key to sustainable consolidation of democracy. The chapters of this edited volume, written by experts from South Korea and Germany in respective fields, examine the way in which South Korea has coped with these challenges in its political system, political economy, and political society since its transition to formal democracy, and provide a focused critical assessment of three decades after democratization.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Book Summary
  • Introduction: South Korea’s Democracy in Light of the Candles
  • The Outline of This Book
  • Part I: Political System
  • Part II: Political Economy
  • Part III: Political Society
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Part I – Political System
  • Characteristics and Challenges of South Korea’s Presidential Government System
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Theoretical Conceptualization
  • 2.1 Presidentialisms with Attributes
  • 2.2 Perils and Merits of Government Systems
  • 2.3 Criteria and Methods
  • 3 Presidential Power within the Executive
  • 3.1 Status of the President in the Executive, and Its Legitimation
  • 3.2 Checks and Balances in the Executive
  • 3.3 Presidential Office
  • 3.4 Vertical Checks and Balances
  • 3.5 Presidential Appointment Rights
  • 4 Presidential Power Vis-à-Vis the Legislative
  • 4.1 Legislative Rights
  • 4.2 Jurisdictive Rights
  • 4.3 Political Party Organization
  • 4.4 Legal Regulations
  • 5 Presidential Power Vis-à-Vis the Judiciary
  • 5.1 Appointment Power
  • 5.2 Pardoning Power
  • 6 Presidential Powers and Political Culture
  • 6.1 Political Culture
  • 6.2 Presidential Leadership
  • 7 Reform Debates on the Constitution
  • 7.1 Government Proposal
  • 7.2 Opposition Proposal
  • 8 Conclusion
  • Legal Statutes
  • Decisions
  • References
  • Thirty Years of Party Politics in South Korea after Democratization: From Mass-Mobilizing Parties to By-Stander Parties
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Roles of Political Parties in South Korea
  • 2.1 Decline of Political Party?
  • 2.2 Political Parties in Post-democratization Period in South Korea
  • 3 Three Reasons for the Weakening of Party Politics in South Korea
  • 3.1 Inadaptability
  • 3.2 The Advent of the Internet Politics
  • 3.3 “Anti-political” Political Reforms
  • 4 Conclusion
  • References
  • Part II – Political Economy
  • Inequality and the Crisis of Democracy in South Korea
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 The Effects of Globalization
  • 3 Does Technological Change Increase Inequality?
  • 4 Labor Market Flexibility
  • 5 The Decline of Trade Unions
  • 6 The Effect of Tax and Social Policies
  • 7 The Political Impacts of Voting System
  • 8 Conclusion
  • References
  • Chaebol Reform in South Korea
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 The Korean Economy Today
  • 2.1 Persistence of Slow Economic Growth
  • 2.2 Crisis in the Manufacturing Sector
  • 2.2.1 The Decline of Competitiveness
  • 2.2.2 Industrial Stagnation and Lack of Innovation
  • 2.3 Zombie Firms and Government-Controlled Banking
  • 2.4 Labor Market and Social Polarization
  • 3 From Government-Led and Chaebol-Centered Economy to Inclusive Market Economy
  • 3.1 Why does Government-Led Policy Fail?
  • 3.1.1 Uncertainty and Innovation
  • 3.1.2 Institutional Preconditions for Innovative Economy
  • 3.1.3 Chaebol and Innovative Economy
  • 3.2 Inclusive Market Economy
  • 3.2.1 Institutional Prerequisites for Market Economy
  • 3.2.2 Welfare System and Social Safety Net
  • 4 Strategy for Chaebol Reform
  • 4.1 Why Chaebol Reform?
  • 4.2 How to Reform?
  • 4.2.1 Israeli Reform of 2013
  • 4.2.2 Application to the Korean Case
  • 5 Concluding Remarks
  • References
  • Part III – Political Society
  • What Social Movements Can (Not) Contribute to Democracy
  • 1 Democracy under Pressure
  • 2 Criteria for a Democracy
  • 3 Social Movements’ Contribution to Democracy: A Differentiation
  • 3.1 Conditions for Social Movements’ Contribution to the Democratic Practice
  • 3.2 Conditions for Social Movements’ Contribution to Safeguarding Democracy
  • 4 Conclusion
  • References
  • Winding Path of Democratization and the Transformation of Citizen Politics in South Korea, 1987–2017
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Two Central Problems: Post-authoritarian Legacies and Post-democracy
  • 2.1 Democratic Deficits in Post-authoritarian Societies
  • 2.2 The Challenges of Post-democracy in an Era of Neoliberalism
  • 3 Dual Problems of South Korean Democracy since 1987
  • 3.1 The Specificity of the Problems of South Korean Democracy
  • 3.2 The Pendulum Movement: Democratization, Re-authoritarianization, Re-democratization
  • 4 Transformations of Civil Society and the Rise of the Candlelight Protests
  • 4.1 Structural Transformations of South Korean Civil Society
  • 4.2 Gains and Limits of the Candlelight Protests and the Impeachment in 2016~2017
  • 5 Conclusion
  • References
  • The Evolution of South Korean Civic Activism1
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Resurgence of Civic Activism in South Korea
  • 2.1 Disaffected Radicalism Thesis
  • 2.2 Social Capital Thesis
  • 2.3 Postmaterialism Thesis
  • 3 Methods
  • 3.1 Data
  • 3.2 Models
  • 3.3 Measurement
  • 3.3.1 Protest Potential
  • 3.3.2 Socioeconomic Status
  • 3.3.3 Party Support
  • 3.3.4 Disaffected Radicalism
  • 3.3.5 Social Capital
  • 3.3.6 Postmaterialism
  • 4 Results
  • 4.1 Who Protests?
  • 4.2 Why Protest?
  • 5 Discussion and Conclusions
  • Appendix 1. Materialism-Postmaterialism Items
  • References
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Contributors

Book Summary

Thirty years have passed since in 1987 formal democratization was achieved in South Korea. Since then the country has undergone the two turnover test (Huntington), and it overcame economic, financial, and political crises. However, social inequality is higher than before democratization, social conflict has been exacerbating, and political polarization has been on the rise. South Korea’s democracy has been going through a continuous stress test trying the polity’s capacity to heal social conflict, integrate society, and mature politics as meeting these challenges is key to sustainable consolidation of democracy. The chapters of this edited volume, written by experts from South Korea and Germany in respective fields, examine the way in which South Korea has coped with these challenges in its political system, political economy, and political society since its transition to formal democracy, and provide a focused critical assessment of three decades after democratization.

Hannes B. Mosler

Introduction: South Korea’s Democracy in Light of the Candles

Abstract This chapter introduces the volume’s overall theme by noting the particularity of South Korea’s candlelight demonstrations in 2016/2017 and their achievements regarding the democratic political system. The chapter acknowledges the significance of these citizens’ movement and its exemplary success in terms of meeting the challenge of a democratic crisis. However, the chapter simultaneously stresses that this movement, in turn, has to be understood as a reaction to the fundamental shortcomings of the country’s democracy. In other words, the chapter argues that citizens were motivated to engage in unconventional political activity because of the political system’s deficient functioning, unsatisfactory socioeconomic output, and inability to meet the demands of society. This observation serves as a fitting backdrop for introducing the chapters written by the contributing authors.

Keywords: South Korea, democracy, candlelight demonstrations, political system, political economy, political society, input, output, trust in government

The candlelight demonstrations of 2016/2017, three decades after its successful transition to formal democracy in 1987, will go down in history as another milestone on South Korea’s fascinating journey of democratization. Over the course of about four months, an astonishing number of people, around 15 million, peacefully participated in the mass rallies that were held mainly around Kwanghwamun Plaza in downtown Seoul, in various cities across the country, and even overseas. They were united in voicing their discontent with the corrupt Park Geun-hye administration in particular and with their country’s deficient political system in general. All over the world, the people participating in South Korea’s “candlelight revolution” were hailed as commendable, showing people how to stand up against the enemies of democracy. This peaceful protest took to the streets and, showing perseverance and determination, evolved into a citizen movement that spurred the previously unmotivated political parties in the national assembly to ultimately translate (i.e. represent) the people’s will ←9 | 10→into an impeachment motion. That same motion then reached the constitutional court that finally decided to unseat the president. This was indeed a surprisingly smooth process involving an array of political parties who expressed the will of the people in the parliament, ultimately projecting it into the larger political system (Almond and Powell 1978; Easton 1957; Merkel 1999), where the input was processed efficiently and effectively to produce an outcome that was satisfactorily received by the country’s vast majority (Mosler 2017).

While this recent even in South Korea’s history is truly a shining example of how a democratic system should work in times of crisis, it simultaneously represents a kaleidoscope of the challenges facing the country’s young democracy (see Mosler 2015; Mosler et al. 2018). To begin with, the deficient input mechanisms of the South Korean political system had prompted the protests in the first place. Put differently, citizens’ feedback was either not received or demands were insufficiently processed due to flaws in the design as well as in poorly operating the system (process functions). In this case, the defect was mainly visible in the abuse of presidential power by Park Geun-hye. These abuses extended to violating the principle of separation of powers, corruption, irresponsibility, being unresponsive to the public, undermining the rule of law, and disrespecting constitutional values such as fundamental civil rights. None of the mechanisms and procedures the government normally used to protect itself from public scrutiny could contain the scandal, not those of the presidential office (the Blue House), the administration, the governing party, or the courts. These dysfunctions, which may seem extreme and dramatic, should not distract observers from the fact that South Korea’s input structures have always been deficient. The presidency, the political parties, and the parliament have long been regarded as ineffective, with public prosecution offices and the courts coming under more recent scrutiny (Choi JJ 2018; Mosler 2018). The level of dissatisfaction among citizens with these political institutions has, over the years, been regularly measured by annual surveys, indicating that the least amount of public trust is reserved for political parties, parliament, members of parliament, the administration, the secret service, and public prosecution offices (see for example KDI 2018; Kim ŬJ 2017; OECD 2017: 251; Realmeter 2018).

←10 | 11→

As a result of the problems noted above, output became less oriented toward meeting the demand of the citizenry. They increasingly suffered the effects of growing economic inequality, extreme competition, social disintegration, irregular employment, market dualization, social polarization, unemployment, poverty, and impeded social mobility (Kim HJ 2018; Shin JW 2018). In addition to the accumulated socioeconomic hardship, there were other factors that sparked, and then sustained, South Korea’s mass demonstrations. In July 2016, students at the topnotch Ewha Woman’s University started protesting against the university’s decision, which had been made behind closed doors, to create a new lifelong learning degree program. The students argued that such a program would lead to a lower quality of education, solely for the sake of the profit to be made in running a vocational training program as a tuition-based business (Sŏ CY 2017; Japan Times 2017). On top of that, critical observers contended, Ewha students feared that their value on the labor market would decline, if one could enter the elite school simply by writing a check. In the end, the university president was pressured to leave office after students revealed that Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of President Park’s secretive confidante Choi Soon-sil, had been admitted to Ewha and received high grades, which hinted that the school had shown favoritism (Kim SM 2017). In late September the National Assembly started an investigation to determine whether the Ewha president’s was potentially guilty of professional misconduct, and soon afterwards the Assembly voiced its suspicion that there had been complicity between Ewha’s president Choi Kyŏng-hŭi and Choi Soon-sil regarding her daughter. These revelations played an important role in giving rise to the dramatic scandal that would lead, by late October 2016, to the impeachment of President Park. In other words, this prelude to the mass demonstrations suggests that in addition to the citizens being frustrated by governmental corruption and misuse of power, they were furious that elites received favorable treatment while common people had to struggle to enter university or earn good grades. Put differently, the mass demonstrators’ rage was fueled by the discrepancy between the standards of democracy, on the one hand, and the actual implementation of those standards, on the other hand – a discrepancy that spoke to the gap between moral ideals and the harsh reality of elite privilege.

←11 | 12→

Other factors motivating the repeated mass demonstrations since the beginning of the 2000s included the spread of postmaterialist values and a simultaneous discontent with political institutions (i.e. structures) that became increasingly less capable of coping with the challenges of globalization (Paek WD 2018). The candlelight demonstrations of 2016/2017, which remain the longest and largest of their kind in South Korea’s history, and which has a profound effect on society, had been a decade and a half in the making. Citizens tried to supplement their flawed system by directing their outage onto the street, which was momentarily sufficient but could not substitute for sound political institutions (see Kim YC 2018).

In the spring of 1960, the Kwanghwamun Plaza and its southward extension, Sejong Road, had been the setting for the April Revolution, a democratic movement that toppled the Rhee Syngman dictatorship. Almost three decades later, in the summer of 1987, the same space became the stage for the June Struggle, when mass demonstrations pushed the authoritarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan to concede, allowing formal democratization. Another 30 years later the same streets of downtown Seoul again witnessed an even stronger people’s movement against the authoritarian remnants of the past, reflecting both the accomplishments of South Korea’s democracy and the challenges it faced ahead.

The Outline of This Book

This book is organized in a manner that corresponds to the challenges of democracy in South Korea: 1) the deficient political institutions; 2) increasingly unsatisfactory socioeconomic outcomes; 3) and a citizenry progressively engaged in political activity. As a result, the book’s three parts address the challenges noted above, which are, in sequence, the political system, political society, and political economy.

Part I: Political System

This part begins with the chapter Characteristics and Challenges of South Korea’s Government System by Hannes B. Mosler, who addresses both the formal and informal characteristics of the presidential system of government. Ever since the democratic turn of 1987, there has been ongoing public and academic debate over how to reform or redesign the political ←12 | 13→system so that it may allow, or even induce, a higher quality of democracy. One point of contention has been the excessive concentration of power around the president, such that it prevents a basic system of checks and balances, where each branch of the government can restrain the others, from evolving into a functioning system, one that is a prerequisite for sound democratic practice. Focusing on the concentration of presidential power, Mosler aims to provide informed insight into that which underlies the problem. He begins by explaining that toward the end of the 1980s, in the course of rushing to democracy, fundamental questions pertaining to the formal institutional design of the new political system had not been sufficiently addressed, which led to citizens being perpetually discontented with the political power structure. Despite the endless debate over why and how to reform particular political institutions, today, more than three decades later, the constitution remains untouched. That does not mean, however, that this long era can be described as one of stasis. On the contrary, by greater involvement in formal practices and procedures, such as those of court decisions and legislation, the political system became one of dynamic change, driving the evolution of South Korea’s democracy. This development was reinforced by the wider society, as ordinary people entered into lively debate over political hot topics and deepened their engagement with civic institutions. Progress has been impressive, but limitations are likewise apparent, largely traceable to the political institutions’ flawed design and to the political system’s unsatisfactory performance. Drawing on the literature to produce a set of evaluation criteria, this chapter analyzes the projection of presidential power vis-à-vis the legislative and judicial branches, the administrative agencies, and the prevailing political culture. Against the backdrop of this analysis and its results, the chapter then discusses recent constitutional reform proposals before concluding with an evaluation of the status-quo of South Korea’s presidential system, some three decades after the country’s transition to formal democracy.

Won-Taek Kang, in his chapter Thirty Years of Party Politics in South Korea after Democratization: From Mass-Mobilizing Parties to By-Stander Parties, focuses on political parties and addresses the decline of party politics. Based on the contention that well-functioning political parties are vital for a sound democracy, Kang analyzes their ←13 | 14→development since democratization in 1987. After having pointed out that in South Korea the deterioration of the institution of political parties began immediately after its transition to democracy, he interprets the phenomenon of candlelight demonstrations, frequently visible in the early 2000s, as symptomatic of increasingly ineffective political parties. Here, ineffectiveness is also suggestive of decline in that such parties had been used to mobilize masses to support the democratic cause. This analysis of declining political parties, which aligns with a general trend that is visible in democracies worldwide, becomes the backdrop Kang’s examination of three factors – organizational, technological, and institutional – that according to his assessment are crucial for understanding the degeneration of political parties in South Korea and their inability to develop into stable organizations: parties based on charismatic leadership, presidentialism, and regionalism. In terms of technological factors, he argues that the Internet and social networks partially substituted for the political parties by performing core tasks. Kang also notes that young people in particular find the Internet to be more attractive, effective, and powerful than political parties. Finally, discussing institutional factors, Kang asserts that reforms of the 2000s, which involved the institution of political parties and their institutional environment, led to the weakening of parties in terms of their capacity to link people, express their will, and represent their interests.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
democratization political economy inequality social conflict political polarization transition
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 224 pp., 11 fig. b/w, 11 tables.

Biographical notes

Hannes B. Mosler (Volume editor)

Hannes B. Mosler holds a PhD in political science and is Professor at the Institute of Korean Studies (IKS) with a focus on Korean politics at Freie Universität Berlin (Germany). His major research interests are political parties, political systems, constitutional law, political remembrance, and policy decision processes in Korea and comparative research approaches.


Title: South Korea’s Democracy Challenge
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226 pages