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South Korea

"Social Welfare is One of the Biggest Challenges"

December 02, 2013 | by SGI NEWS

Political scientist Thomas Kalinowski talks about South Korea’s first female president, quality of democracy and social justice as well as the role of the national intelligence service.

SGI News: Mr. Kalinowski, in the South Korea Report of the SGI Asia study you describe former president Lee Myung-bak as the country’s corporate chief executive officer (CEO). How would you characterize the country’s new president, Park Geun-hye, who has been in office since February 2013?

Thomas Kalinowski © private

Thomas Kalinowski: The election of President Park represents a political swing to the right, but her specific political goals have remained fairly unclear so far. Although both are members of the conservative party, the new president’s background is completely different from that of her predecessor. She is the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1979. She became Acting First Lady after her mother was murdered by North Korea. After her father was assassinated in 1979 by his own head of intelligence, she disappeared from politics and only re-emerged as a member of parliament in the 1990s. Park’s critics have accused her of having an authoritarian leadership style like her predecessor. Her supporters, however, are hoping she will bring Korea the same kind of strong economic growth as her father did.

SGI News: In your opinion, what are the biggest political challenges facing the new president?

Thomas Kalinowski: The biggest challenge so far has been the government transition itself. Park needed a very long time to install her new government. Many of the people she picked to become ministers, vice ministers and state secretaries were not approved by parliament or had to withdraw because their candidacy came under critical scrutiny. Several posts in important government institutions remain vacant to this day. Park rarely listened to advice and tried to push through her nominees despite strong opposition, which ultimately led to many of them being rejected.

SGI News: SGI’s 2011 ranking of democracy quality put South Korea in 29th place out of 31. How would you assess this score?

Thomas Kalinowski: South Korea is a democracy that can definitely measure up against democracies in Europe and other OECD countries. You need to remember that South Korea has only had free elections since 1987 and that it got its first president without a military background in 1993. I would not say that South Korea has a poor quality of democracy. In the rankings, the country is about where one would expect a young democracy that has undergone extremely rapid social change and economic development to be.

SGI News: What areas need improvement?

Thomas Kalinowski: One big problem is that South Korea has weak political parties. Politics is dominated by a few strong individuals and their networks. There is very little continuity in the party landscape. For example, the current president simply renamed her party from Hannara to Saenuri in order to distance herself from her unpopular predecessor. In addition, party loyalty is divided along geographic lines. The conservative party is strong in the eastern half of the country, and the opposition, the democrats, is strong in the western half. There are bigger differences in terms of their regional distribution than in policy content.

SGI News: Is that seen as a problem?

Thomas Kalinowski: Yes, definitely. It is one of the most heated debates right now. A few years ago, a new player emerged on the political stage – software developer and businessman Ahn Cheol-soo. He is already being treated as a candidate for the presidential elections four years from now. Ahn is working to build a movement of his own that represents a political alternative to the "traditional" parties. So far his political movement has focused very strongly on him and his ideas; it remains to be seen whether he will be able to resist the lure of authoritarianism.

SGI News: Park Geun-hye has been a strong advocate of what she calls "economic democracy." What does she mean by that?

Thomas Kalinowski: This concept is often misunderstood outside South Korea. It does not refer to employee participation or anything like that. The Korean economy is highly polarized. On one side are large corporations like Samsung and Hyundai, which are active in a wide range of areas. They dominate the country’s economy. The other side includes companies that supply those large corporations as well as smaller businesses and the service sector. Critics say the large corporations exploit these companies, turn them against one another and acquire them at will. The government understands economic democracy primarily to mean large corporations being fair with their smaller partners.

SGI News: Has the new president done anything to encourage this kind of fairness?

Thomas Kalinowski: It is still too early to say for sure, since Park has only been office for a short time and the transitional phase lasted so long. She has done things like invite the heads of these large corporations to her office and urged them to treat their supplier companies better, to invest more and to create more jobs. The corporations then responded with a few symbolic acts, in which they changed some unstable work conditions to stable work conditions. The government also launched investigations into the business practices of some of the major companies and some high profile business people are currently serving prison sentences.

SGI News: That sounds more like grasping at straws than a real strategy.

Thomas Kalinowski: Yes. And most importantly, there have been very few institutional changes. South Korea is still ruled through a network of connections between political leaders and the large corporations.

SGI News: Social justice is another big topic in many Asian countries. Is that the case in South Korea too?

Thomas Kalinowski: Absolutely. There is a lot of discussion of the lack of social justice. South Korea’s economy developed very quickly and this process was not accompanied by the same degree of social inequality as in, say, Latin America. South Korea has always had a few very wealthy business leaders and their families, but the income gap was fairly narrow in the rest of society. This has changed dramatically since the mass layoffs that came with the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98. Many of the people who were laid off then were re-hired later on, but this time with temporary, fixed-term and other unstable contracts that limited their employment to one year and offered less of a safety net. In addition, these workers are far less unionized than regular employees because only regular employees can join enterprise unions in South Korea. And unlike here in Germany, industrial unions in South Korea are very weak. Youth unemployment and old age poverty are also serious problems. All of this has made society much more polarized. Granted, there have been efforts to counteract this trend by developing the country’s social welfare system, but these steps have not gone far enough. Further expanding the social welfare system is one of the biggest challenges facing Korea in the coming years and decades – especially given the demographic changes it is undergoing.

SGI News: Capital flight and currency decay are shaking many countries in Asia right now, like Indonesia, India and Malaysia. Is this having an impact on South Korea?

Thomas Kalinowski: South Korea has not been hit as hard as those countries. It has a strong export economy, a large trade surplus and vast currency reserves. Korea has seen some impact in the form of an outflow of portfolio investment, where mainly foreign investors sold their shareholdings. The currency has lost some of its value but not a lot – besides, that is good for its export economy. The stock market is suffering but I don’t expect this to trigger a crisis due to capital flight as in 1997–98. Unlike then, South Korea now has very little short-term foreign debt and it can easily settle that debt using its currency reserves. Of course the caveat here is that we do not know exactly how fast the country can mobilize those reserves.

SGI News: How do you think democracy will develop in South Korea under President Park?

Thomas Kalinowski: That’s hard to say. A big debate is currently going on about the role of the national intelligence service. Among other things, it has come under fire for having allegedly tried to influence the presidential elections in December 2012. The National Security Act of 1948 is also still in force. It allows the government to arrest people who make positive statements about North Korea or travel to North Korea without permission. These examples show how the legacy of the military dictatorship and the way the south is dealing with the threat from the north continue to impede democracy from further evolving and deepening in South Korea. Ultimately, the future of Korean democracy will depend on the degree to which the country manages to strengthen democratic participation and freedom of speech. There are some reasons to be optimistic. Compared to China and even Japan, civil society organizations, for instance, are much better developed in Korea due to the strong tradition of its democracy movement that successfully overthrew the military dictatorship in 1987.

Thomas Kalinowski is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Graduate School of International Studies, Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea. He co-authored the South Korea Report of the SGI Asia study.

Interview: SGI News

English translation by Douglas Fox.

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