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The Cherry Blossom Uprising: Monitory Democracy in Korea

Impeached President Park Geun-hye. Korean Culture and Information Service

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Political scientists trained or based in the Atlantic region have a bad habit of ignoring trends in our Asia-Pacific region. When they do pay attention to its dynamics, they often misleadingly measure them by their own particular standards dressed up as false universals. Larry Diamond’s Spirit of Democracy (2008) is an influential case in point. It measures the whole world by the norm of what he and his fellow American political scientists call “liberal democracy”. By this he means: a political system founded on “regular, free, and fair elections” that guarantee “individual freedom” thanks to a vibrant “civil society”, a multi-party system, a written constitution and “control over the military and state security apparatus by civilians who are ultimately accountable to the people through elections”.

The dramatic impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in Korea shows why the analysts and friends of democracy need to rethink and reject these biased liberal presumptions. Something dramatically non-liberal has just happened in the Republic of Korea. Monitory democracy, what Korean scholars and citizens call pasugun min ju ju ei, has scored an important victory against an elected president secretly backed by family-controlled “chaebol” business conglomerates.

Last Friday, the Constitutional Court ruled that former President Park had infringed upon the constitution and other laws by abusing her status and power for the interests of her long-time friend Choi Soon-sil. The investigations of the court, backed by muckraking investigative journalists and courageous citizens’ protests, revealed the deeply damaging effects of dark money on Korean democracy.

An independent counsel team noted that more than 50 leading Korean companies had provided 77.4 billion won ($US66.4 million) in funding for two foundations controlled by Choi. The sums are staggering. The Samsung Group “donated” 20.4 billion won. The Hyundai Motor Group chipped in 12.8 billion won and the SK Group added an extra 7.8 billion won. The independent counsel team investigating the scandal regarded the donations as bribes from the conglomerates, which were seeking business favours in return.

Separation of powers

These findings, backed by determined street protests by brave citizens throughout the harsh winter months, have great significance, not only for the future of Korea, a strategically significant wealthy democracy facing new military pressures, but for the whole of our Asia-Pacific region. The Cherry Blossom Uprising, let’s call it, has shown that peaceful, digitally connected citizens can act as dynamos of the democratisation of governmental power. The success of the citizen uprising proves that things can be changed by citizens in between “free and fair” elections that yield a corrupted government lacking public legitimacy.

The Cherry Blossom Uprising shows as well that democracy is much more than “free and fair” elections. Liberals take note: my attempt (with Sang-Jin Han) to sketch a new history of democracy for Korean readers, Monitory Democracy and the Future of Korean Politics, points out that the years since 1945 have witnessed the creation of scores of new watchdog bodies and public scrutiny experiments (what Koreans call pasugun) designed to keep tabs on those who exercise power, especially in the fields of business and government, and in cross-border settings.

Seen from this perspective, what is really significant about the Cherry Blossom Uprising is that it shows that democracy is coming to have a new historical meaning, that it should nowadays be understood as self-government of citizens and their chosen representatives by means of periodic elections plus the continuous public scrutiny and restraint of power wherever it is exercised, in the bedroom, in the boardroom, behind closed doors, or on the battlefield.

Democracy is becoming a dynamic, leaks-ridden, noisy affair, an unending effort to prevent the abuse of power, wherever and whenever it happens. Local proof that Korea has entered the age of monitory democracy came last week in the form of a rare “supplementary opinion” by one of the eight Constitutional Court justices who made a unanimous verdict to oust Park. Justice Ahn Chang-ho noted that one of the lessons of the Park-Choi scandal lies with the concentration of power in the president. He pointed out that the existing constitution, revised in 1987 in the wake of a pro-democracy movement, affirmed the principle of a direct popular vote for the president. While that reform put an end to successive military dictatorships, which began with Park Geun-hye’s father, the late President Park Chung-hee, in 1961, the 1987 basic law still enables elected presidents to abuse their considerable powers.

In effect, said Justice Ahn Chang-ho, the “imperial presidency” was the root cause of the Park-Choi scandal. It produced meddling in state affairs by the president’s civilian associates and the collusion between the president and businesses, all in the name of a fictive “sovereign people”.

In recent days, the supplementary opinion has been widely noted and discussed publicly. It will surely help fuel efforts to remove powerful watchdog agencies, such as the tax service and anti-trust and financial agencies, from the clutches of future elected presidents. More monitory democracy would in effect mean the abolition of the imperial presidency: not just its transformation into a semi-presidential or Taiwanese-style double executive system, in which the president shares power with the prime minister and a parliamentary cabinet system, but the empowerment of unelected monitory bodies dedicated to the restraint and humbling of arbitrary state power.

Democracy Failure

The Cherry Blossom Uprising has an even deeper significance. It points to the need to redefine democracy much more capaciously than liberals do, and to recognise that “democracy failure” happens when arbitrary power is allowed to flourish in the big-money realm of capitalist markets.

It’s now an open secret in Korean society that business tycoons who made donations to foundations run by Choi couldn’t easily reject demands from the president or her aides, for fear of government reprisals. But what’s also clear is that the family-controlled “chaebol” conglomerates are themselves rotten boroughs.

Stable cleaning inside government, many Korean citizens are now saying, requires the radical reform of the “chaebol” conglomerates themselves. In other words: the best remedy for democracy failure is the strengthening of democracy inside the corporate world.

Before last week’s impeachment decision, the country’s major conglomerates had already come up with reform plans. Many critics said that the plans were much too timid and tepid. Following the arrest of Samsung Electronics vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong, Samsung Group’s de facto boss, the country’s biggest conglomerate changed its tune. It has now closed its Future Strategy Office, the body that nurtured the company’s links with government. Samsung has also announced that hereon any company sponsorship or donations deal exceeding 1 billion won will have to be approved by its board of directors.

SK Hynix and SK Telecom are following suit, and the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), the “chaebol” lobby group that helped collect bribe money from the conglomerates, also announced plans to reform itself. Is it just possible, with a bit of luck, citizen pressure and the loyal backing of the police and army, that Korea is setting a bold new trend, doing something that no democracy in the Asia Pacific has so far dared do properly: putting an end to dark money and crony capitalism in public affairs?

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