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South Korea’s choice between prosperity and democracy

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South Korean protesters at a rally against government policies in Seoul, South Korea, 5 December 2015. (Photo: APP).

In Brief

South Korea has been celebrated for the twin successes of its rapid economic development and democratisation. But the political and economic progress that has taken place has increasingly come under challenge in recent years.


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The worsening gap between the rich and the poor, and certain undemocratic policies have been cause for growing concern among the public. Two of the most controversial issues of 2015 reflect these concerns: new labour reforms and the adoption of government-mandated history textbooks. Both of these issues brought about widespread protests.

The latest agenda for labour reforms has stirred the greatest controversy, sparking violent confrontations between the government and dissenters. In September, the Economic and Social Development Commission and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions reached a consensus on regulations for employment and dismissal. Full details of the regulations have not yet been revealed. But the more progressive Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which was not included in the negotiations, considers the reform to be bad for workers as it would make it easier and cheaper for companies to dismiss full-time employees and exploit irregular workers.

On 14 November, tens of thousands of citizens in Seoul participated in a protest organised by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and various civil groups to oppose the proposed labour reforms. The police suppressed the protest by creating ‘car walls’ to block the protesters and using water cannons. Right after this incident, a New York Times editorial commented that ‘it is alarming that President Park Geun-hye appears intent on backtracking on the democratic freedoms that have made South Korea as different from North Korea’s puppet regime as day is from night.’

An equally controversial issue that heightened a sense of democratic crisis was the Park administration’s announcement of a policy mandating high schools to adopt government-issued Korean history textbooks only. Previously, high schools were free to adopt from an array of independently produced history textbooks as long as the government certified them. Now the government is set to write a textbook to provide students with a more patriotic, ‘correct history’.

This initiative has inspired strong opposition within South Korea and overseas. Professional historians both inside and outside South Korea have made clear that such a government-initiated history textbook would be a significant retreat from the principle of academic freedom. The public, including high school students, have taken to the streets, demanding that the government retract the policy and allow diverse interpretations of history. Even a few national assembly members from the New Frontier Party, the current ruling party, stated that the way the government has handled the matter has been undemocratic.

Critics also expressed concern that the new policy could damage South Korea’s moral standing in its criticism of the Shinzo Abe government’s historical revisionism, which downplays Japan’s wartime atrocities including the so-called ‘comfort women’ system of sex slavery during the Asia Pacific War. The Park government’s intention to exercise this level of control over history textbooks is seen as only the latest episode of infringement on freedom and diversity.

Discontent with the current government is particularly high among South Koreans in their 20s (at 75 per cent), 30s (68 per cent) and 40s (60 per cent). Older citizens have comparatively much lower rates of dissatisfaction. The newly-coined term ‘Hell Chosŏn’ conveys the unhappiness and alarm that grips the younger population. The phrase, combining the English word ‘hell’ with reference to the Chosŏn Dynasty and its association with the feudal class system, reflects the low morale of the young generation, who don’t see any opportunities to succeed in terms of employment or standard of living.

Education used to be a reliable means for upward social mobility, but the exorbitant costs of private, extra-curricular tutoring means that many of those opportunities are lost to those who cannot pay for them. Even if a young person succeeds in securing a college education, the job market is tougher than ever. The unemployment rate of those aged 15 to 29 is 10.2 per cent compared to an overall rate of 4.1 per cent. This is the highest recorded rate of youth unemployment since the measure was first taken in 2000.

The prospects for long-term employment also seem limited. Since the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the subsequent restructuring of large companies, ‘irregular’ or temporary jobs have rapidly increased in proportion to regular jobs. Between 2011 and 2014, one-third of all South Koreans who were employed held irregular jobs. That represents a rate much higher than the average among OECD countries.

Those between the ages of 15 and 29 have only recently emerged as a focal point of concern. The problems confronting other groups, such as children, women and the elderly, have received more attention from the legislature. It appears that this younger generation will bear the brunt of the slowing economy, the worsening class gap and the brutal job market. In the lead up to the national election in April 2016, political parties are now pledging to tackle the challenges of the younger generation — namely poverty, debt and unemployment.

As in previous elections, it is likely that strategic plans for economic growth and high expectations of social equity will be deciding factors in appealing to voters. In the past there was a willingness to accept infringements on democracy in the interest of economic expansion. In the wake of Park Geun-hye’s election in 2012 some analyses suggested that her victory reflected the desire for economic growth that had been part of the legacy of her father, former president Park Chung Hee.

South Koreans face economic challenges. Yet they have developed high expectations that their government will adhere to democratic principles. The active opposition of South Koreans to proposed labour reforms and government-mandated textbooks suggests an unwillingness to sacrifice democratic ideals for economic advancement.

Hyaeweol Choi is a Professor of Korean Studies and Director of the Korea Institute at The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.

4 responses to “South Korea’s choice between prosperity and democracy”

  1. I think that the South Korean people want economic advancement, but not at the expense of being slaves to the corporations and wealthy people. Regarding the history books, it seems that the government is adopting the Japanese government method of whitewashing the Japanese history books that it has been doing since the end of World War II.

    In the USA, you have right-wing conservatives and Christian evangelists trying to whitewash American history books that are published in the state of Texas and then are distributed nationwide. Those American history books will have little no information about civil rights movements, labor strikes, discrimination against various minorities, women’s rights, etc. In addition, those same books will be extolling the virtues of no government regulation, unregulated capitalism, obedience to authority, and will try to praise the “positive” aspects of slavery. One American history book was criticized for calling the Afro-American slaves “workers.”

    • I also think that South Koreans want to see thriving economy. But the uneven distribution of wealth and life opportunities are getting worse, causing serious despair among the vast majority of the population.

      History textbooks have always been the site of contest. In the face of the South Korean government’s push toward state-mandated history books, professional historians and many civic groups have begun to work on writing alternative textbooks that might provide more comprehensive coverage and diverse interpretations of historical events.

  2. The use of so called irregular, temporary workers may be profitable for the corporations but spells significant problems for the workers. Lower wages, less job security and less opportunity for advancement translate into increasing income inequality, lower morale, and lower rates of marriage. Korea will find itself on the road to economic stagnation and increasing social malaise if these new so called ‘reforms’ are enacted. Corporations might make more profits in the short term but at what cost(s) in the longer term?

    • I think you are right on point. The ongoing protests indicate the unprecedented despair of the have-nots. The accompanying problem has been the lack of vision and strategies from the opposition party to provide voters with a viable alternative to this neoliberal plan. Most pundits seem to predict that the ruling party will prevail in the coming election in April; however, the true test may be in 2017 when Koreans elect their next president.

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