Monday, May 10, 2010

The Four Legacies of Korean Political History

This is from the informative, but assertive and I suspect controversial, introduction to Understanding Korean Politics, published in 2001 and edited by Kil Soong-Hoom and Moon Chung-in.

Legacy number one: A Korea has a very "narrow ideological spectrum." Following the Korean War, a combination of Cold War realities, political dictatorships, and a widespread obsession with economic growth effectively supressed ideological diversity, particularly of the "leftist" variety.

#2. "Authoritarianism." From Confucianism, to Japanese colonial rule, to effective American occupation, to the effective or real dictatorships of Rhee, Park, and Chun, Korea is very familiar with non-democratic forms of government.

#3. "the bureaucratic state" Governance in Korea is dominated by the National government in Seoul which in turn is dominated by the Executive and hence the President.

#4. "the myth of revolution from above" or an obsession with the "study of political leadership." Korean political discourse has focused almost exclusively on the actions of its leaders as opposed to studying institutions, interest groups, or constituencies.

There is a great deal to be gained from understanding Korean politics through these four legacies. But, perhaps ironically, although the authors are seeking to discredit those legacies, by using them as an analytical framework, they are I think, reinforcing a narrative of Korean political history that marginalizes the very actors and events that I would assume them to sympathize with. So although Korean political history has been full of dictators, it has also been full of opposition to them, and just as Korean political discourse has been obsessed with its leaders, it has also has a rich history of despising, distrusting, and evading them.


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