South Korea’s Top-Down Democracy
While popular movements in South Korea rightly grab the headlines for forcing political change and holding leaders to account, those movements are only part of the story of the construction and practice of democracy. The elite-led design and management of electoral and party institutions form another part. More often than not, South Korea’s rulers have responded to freer and fairer elections by entrenching rather than abandoning exclusionary practices and forms of party organization – even as they appropriate symbols and slogans of bottom-up resistance. These practices point to subtle ways that democratic accountability can be undermined. South Korea’s experience suggests that we should think about democratization not as the establishment of an entirely new system, but as the subtle blending of new formal rules with earlier authority structures, political institutions, and legitimizing norms.
Erik Mobrand is associate professor in the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University. He is the author of Top-Down Democracy in South Korea (University of Washington Press, forthcoming 2019).