Prospects and Conclusions: Toward a Democratic Polity with Civilian Control of the Military?

As has already been argued, the basic reason for the unusually long term of military rule in South Korea lies in an unusually spectacular gap in power resources between civilian forces and the military. Overdeveloped state apparatus, including the military as well as police and bureaucracy, consolidated a pre-emptive control over the underdeveloped civil society. This phenomenon is not uncommon in post-colonial societies (Alavi 1979), but it was especially evident in Korea because the South has been in constant military tension with the North, and the military has thus occupied a more critical position than in other post-colonial societies.

Nevertheless, it is paradoxical that once the democratisation process began, the chances for the military’s reintervention in politics appear to have become more remote in Korea than in, say, Latin America, where the military was forced out of political power but society is still conflict-ridden. Certainly, since Roh’s inauguration, Korean politics is in disarray with factional struggles and unfulfilled democratic dreams, while the economy is also in considerable difficulties with a growing trade imbalance, inflation, and class conflicts. Yet, these issues do not appear likely to bring the military back into politics in the foreseeable future. The structure of the relationship between the military and civilian sectors has been reversed; now the military is underdeveloped in comparison to the civilian sectors, and political power will never again be derived primarily from naked physical force.

In this regard, the Korean cycle of authoritarianism and democracy appears to be longer than in most developing countries (though resembling Spain and Portugal where democracy is more or less consolidated after long periods of dictatorship by personal rulers). Korea now seems to have entered the first stage of democratisation after a long period of authoritarian rule. But whether democracy will be institutionalised and civilian control of the military consolidated in the short run is another question; short-term reversals of events (which may be derived from conjunctural and motivational factors) are always possiblities in a long-term cycle (which is determined by structural factors).

For the foreseeable future, Korean politics will demonstrate democratic tendencies, with a clear limit to the participation of diverse interests (especially those of the have-nots) in the political process. Limited democratisation may well be a worse alternative, because it will incite discontent among radical and reactionary forces at the same time. What is important in this situation is effective political leadership to control demands by the diverse forces to a degree acceptable for the maintenance of the nascent civilian political structure, and at the same time pursue democratic reform and more equitable social transformation. When political leadership lacks this capacity, the military, and other discontented forces as well, will impose political pressure in one way or another, even if an outright coup is not plausible.

Civilian control of the military, a minimum requirement of consolidation of democracy, depends upon the internalisation of ‘democratic professionalism’ among officers, according to which the military accepts ‘not only the political subordination of the armed forces to the democratically determined will of the nation, but also their professional subordination to constitutionally designated state authorities’ (Fitch 1989:134). It is too early to determine whether Korean military officers have internalised democratic professionalism. Political orientations of Korean officers are hard to clarify because there are deficiencies in empirical analysis, but the opinions and actions of several senior officers during democratic transition showed that they still retained the essential features of the new professionalism. It would be unreasonable to expect that Korean military officers will abandon this political attitude in the short term. Their political attitudes are rapidly changing, but this change was imposed upon them by democratic transition. To achieve a more positive acceptance of democratic civilian authority by the military, changes must occur not only in officers’ political orientations but also in political institutions and overall social structure as well.