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Reviewed by:
  • Transforming Korean Politics: Democracy, Reform, and Culture
  • Jungmin Seo (bio)
Transforming Korean Politics: Democracy, Reform, and Culture, by Young Whan Kihl. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2005. 424 pp. $79.95 cloth, $29.95 paper.

This book is a broad overview of Korean politics since the democratization in 1987. By emphasizing the centrality of culture and ideas in political transition, the author, a prominent senior Korean political scientist, brings back the sixties' political culture paradigm, invented and promoted by modernization theorists such as Gabriel Almond, Sydney Verba, and Samuel Huntington. Though the author encompasses recent theoretical developments in the study of political culture—works by Inglehard, Harrison and Huntington, and Geertz—the core concept of culture and ideas in this book maintains very traditional scholarship. [End Page 110] For example, the author defines culture "as a system of ideas, beliefs, values, and value-orientation" (p. 30), value as "conceptions of desirables" (p. 28), and ideas as "a set of beliefs held by individuals" (p. 27). Basically, the author treats culture as a specific society's inherent traits inherited from the past and as a determinant of or independent variable to social and political changes. In some sense, this approach might be an ambitious, novel but ironical attempt to analyze the post-democratization Korean politics, since the traditional political culture theorists used the concept of "parochial" and "traditional" culture to explain the origins of dictatorship and delayed modernization in the non-Western society such as pre-democratization Korea and to make sense of the superiority of the Western civilization. The paradigm to explain why Korea was not democratic and traditional is now being used by the author to explicate why and how Korean society was able to consolidate democracy and to promote globalization.

The main body of the book starts with the purported core system of Korean political culture, Confucianism and its prolonged impacts from traditional dynasties to modernization processes in the sixties and seventies (chapter 2). Subsequently, the author traces how ideas of democracy (chapters 3, 4, and 7) and globalization (chapters 5 and 6) shaped the post-democratization Korean polity. Unlike many other works written by political scientists, this book makes bold assessments on the current Roh Moo-Hyun regime (chapter 8 and epilogue) and predictions on future developments in the Korean political system (chapter 9). Though the first and second chapters emphasize "taking culture seriously," following chapters show impressive flexibility and breadth, freely importing various concepts such as security dilemma, developmental state, collective action problem, and democratic peace theory to analyze domestic and foreign policies of the Korean state. Though liberal use of a number of different theories weakens the core theme of this book, "culture matters," it adds a significant value to the book by providing comprehensive lists of authors and works on Korean politics.

In terms of its core theme, analyzing Korean politics since 1997 from the lens of political culture, this book is an impressive attempt but leaves a number of inconsistencies both in theories and empirical aspects and fails to establish a coherent causal relationship. While the author asserts that the idea of democracy matters in the prolonged process of institutional democratization and democratic consolidation, this book does not specify how the very concept of "democracy," which is extremely versatile and multi-faceted, was formed and evolved in the Korean civil society. Especially, omission of the key concepts related to Korean democratization, such as minjung (people) and anti-colonial nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s, significantly weakens the book's appeal to readers concerned in Korean political culture. The ideational aspect of "globalization," another key idea suggested by the author, is not properly dealt with [End Page 111] either. Chapters on globalization (5 and 6) primarily focus on the Korean state's reaction to the globalized world economy, not on the formulation and dynamics of "culture of globalization" in Korean politics and society.

In spite of a few weaknesses and inconsistencies, this book is an invaluable addition to the weakly built field of Korean political studies, especially in the English-speaking world. Considering the scarcity of monographs that overview contemporary Korean politics, the broad scope of this book, though sometimes at...


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