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The Good Society 11.2 (2002) 40-45

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Civil Society and Democracy in South Korea

Hagen Koo

Civil society is an old notion rooted in the early experiences of Western Europe. The revival of this concept owes a great deal to the remarkable political developments in eastern and central Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. The sudden collapse of Soviet-style communist regimes in the region was frequently interpreted as a consequence of the resurgence of civil society in opposition to the oppressive state socialist system. The "resurrected civil society" is looked at as a major weapon against despotism and as a major means of deepening political reforms in the post-socialist societies. The popularity of the civil society concept, however, is not restricted to countries with a European historical background. The concept is often used in Latin America and in East Asia as well. Many Latin American countries can claim to have a tradition of civil society due to the legacy of European colonialism. But even in East Asia, which obviously had a very different history and set of traditions than Europe or Latin America, the language of civil society has great appeal and is used as frequently to talk about the recent transition to democracy as in other continents. To a certain extent, this is because the notion of civil society is both an analytic and normative or political concept. Civil society is generally accepted as something desirable to have, for both promoting democracy and achieving a good society, and as an important barometer of modernity and social progress in the Third World. 1

The purpose of this essay is to review how the concept of civil society has been used in one East Asian society, South Korea, in the context of its recent transition to democracy and to examine how the development pattern and the character of civil society that has emerged differs from the patterns drawn from early Western European experiences.

Origins of Civil Society in South Korea

The political transition to democracy in South Korea occurred in June 1987 as a consequence of massive street protests by students joined by a large number of white-collar workers and other citizens. This massive mobilization of anti-government protesters forced the Chun Doo Hwan regime to surrender to the "people's power" and to agree to implement a direct presidential election, scheduled in December 1987. Substantial political liberalization began to occur from the summer of 1987.

This sudden political transition and the events that followed led many students of Korean development to use the notion of civil society to interpret the process. It is a well-known fact that South Korea achieved rapid industrialization in the past four decades, accompanied by a rapid expansion of the middle class. It is thus generally assumed that Korea's civil society grew as a consequence of the vigorous market economy and the expansion of the middle classes, in more or less the same fashion as civil society developed in the early industrialized societies in the West. The civil society that emerged became increasingly discontent with authoritarian rule and supported the student-led democracy movements, leading ultimately to the demise of military rule in 1987. In a recent book on Korean democratic transition, Politics of Democratization in Korea: The Role of Civil Society, Kim presents a widely accepted view among Korean scholars about an important role of civil society in South Korea's democratic transition: "The resurrected, reactivated, and re-mobilized civil society drove the reluctant and often recalcitrant ruling regime to initiate and pursue democratic reforms. In this regard, the resurrection of civil society came before—not during or after—the transition." 2 The words, "resurrected," "reactivated," or "reconstituted," are frequently used phrases in the literature on transitions from statist socialism in eastern Europe or from authoritarian rule in countries like Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and other Latin American countries. By using the same terms, analysts of the South Korean transition make the same assumption—that civil society in South Korea has been in existence for a long time, but has been...


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