Democratisation and the End to Military Rule?

With the inauguration of Roh Tae Woo as president in 1988, Korean politics appear to have entered a new era of democratic transition. This transition is not just a result of the transfer of power from Chun to Roh but a consequence of long-term structural changes in the relationship between the military and civilian sectors.

During the course of almost thirty years of military rule, the Korean economy and society were fundamentally transformed; society became diversified, class forces grew and became better organised, and the democratic orientation of the general populace strengthened. With these changes, the military was no longer the most advanced sector of Korean society. Structural changes were already evident when a massive struggle erupted between the military and civilian forces in 1980, but the New Military Group appears not to have been aware of this change, believing that it could still lead and dominate Korean society. The year 1987 was different from 1980; Chun’s term was about to terminate, although rumors lingered that he would seek to stay in power. The remaining problem was how to reorganise the political structure for the post-Chun period. Harsh authoritarian rule was out of the question from the beginning; the democratic movement had strengthened, and the military certainly wished to avoid brutal struggles such as the Kwangju Uprising.

The result was a combination of democratic pressures from the opposition camp (basically the same members as in 1980, but better organised and far more radicalised) and the political tactics of the ruling group, which made for limited democratisation. Democratic forces issued a powerful challenge but the ruling group did not employ the armed forces to put down the challenge, because senior officers as well as the president were not willing to risk such action and the US government was putting pressure on the regime for a peaceful transition of power. Roh Tae Woo, representing a moderate faction of the ruling party, used the situation to turn the tide toward his group. Roh proclaimed that he would agree to presidential elections, which the opposition had long demanded, and promised the release of Kim Dae Jung and other opposition leaders. (It was recently revealed that this political concession was initiated by Chun rather than Roh. See S.I. Kim 1992.) As a result, the struggle for democratic transition moved from the streets to the political parties. In subsequent presidential elections the opposition was once again hopelessly divided between archrivals Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung. In a factionalised contest Roh earned electoral victory with only 36.6 per cent of total votes. His victory was only possible because of the division of the opposition and, thus, his political legitimacy was shallow from the beginning.

Democratisation in Korea displays some features unique among recently democratised countries. Most obviously, while in other countries the ruling party lost power for a variety of reasons, in Korea it retains power as democratisation was achieved by one faction, a moderate faction, of the ruling group.

How, then, can the ruling bloc still hold power in Korea despite massive challenges from the majority of the electorate, and why does the Roh government try to convince people that it represents their democratic wishes? The answer to the first question can be found in the weakness of the opposition. Even when the military is willing to give up power, its withdrawal from politics cannot be completed unless there are political institutions, notably political parties, capable of assuming power (Finer 1985:75-76). In Korea, the opposition party has lacked this capacity mainly because it has been divided into two intransigent rival camps. In the case of the second question the answer lies in what was discussed previously, the evaporation of historical functions of authoritarian rule. Roh Tae Woo appears to understand that it is now impossible for any group in Korea to continue authoritarian rule. He tries to consolidate political support with plans for democratic reform, although it is hard to initiate because the veto power of entrenched interests, including the president’s own, is still very strong. The passing of authoritarian rule, combined with lack of alternative democratic leadership, ultimately led the process of political transition in Korea into a kind of compromise (a compromise by default), a limited democratisation initiated by opposition forces but soon taken over by the existing power bloc.

After inauguration, Roh consolidated his grip on the military by a series of changes in key positions. Officers’ political attitudes also seem to have been changing. There were instances of discontent about decreased political status among officers, inevitable in the democratisation process; but they were overcome and the president’s control of the military now seems to be stable enough. Korean officers appear to understand that another intervention in politics would be futile. They vividly remember what happened to Chun’s brutal takeover of power and, more fundamentally, they perceive irreversible changes in the relationship between the military and the civilian sectors.

Within the military itself there also seems to be less inclination towards political intervention; disharmony between age and rank, premature promotions, and factional struggles, which were the essential causes of the officers’ political discontent, seem to have virtually disappeared (Hong 1990:136-138). Officers still find some sources of discontent, such as narrow opportunities for promotion, but this is not likely to lead to direct intervention in politics.

However, while the structural conditions which would facilitate military rule have now disappeared and officers’ motives for direct political action have also significantly diminished, it is still doubtful whether the democratic polity in Korea is securely institutionalised.

To be able to answer this we need to understand exactly what are the characteristics of the Roh regime. Roh Tae Woo was clearly a leading member of the New Military Group which staged the coup against the formal military authority, and brutally suppressed people demanding democracy. The military is still a powerful force in Korean society; it wields strong influence in Korean politics and ex-officers still dominate key areas of politics and society. It is thus difficult to consider the Roh government genuinely civilian. But, on the other hand, it can scarcely be described as a military regime (even a quasi-civilian military regime) either, because it does not depend primarily on the physical force of the military for its political control. Politics in Korea is now managed through a kind of civilian-led liberal democratic procedure in which elections and public opinion are significant. Seen in this light, the present regime stands somewhere between military-authoritarian and civilian-democratic (and hopefully developing from the former to the latter).