The Road of No Return

At first glance, South Korean politics looks bleak these days. President Roh Moo Hyun's approval ratings have dropped through the floor. His ruling Uri Party is coming apart at the seams as members defect en masse, desperately trying to put daylight between themselves and the struggling president. Roh himself even resigned from the party recently in the hope of saving its chances at the next presidential election, scheduled for this coming December.

Bad as all this sounds, however, one ingredient has been conspicuously absent: a sense of crisis. In many other Asian countries, investors would be heading for the exits by now. Not here, where GDP has grown 5 percent and the stock market 7 percent in the past year. Once upon a time, governmental chaos could have spurred a coup—as happened last year in Thailand and in South Korea itself in 1961 and 1979; today the prospect seems unthinkable. To be sure, a lot can happen in the months between now and the election, and South Korean politics are famously dramatic. But underneath the turmoil, the political fundamentals are growing stronger. Commentators now say that the country is well on its way to becoming one of Asia's most mature liberal democracies, with one of the few fairly stable two-party systems in the region (even Japan is effectively a one-party state). According to Freedom House, South Korea now ranks among the freest countries in the region. That's mostly thanks to reforms undertaken by its past few presidents—and, remarkably, by the much-maligned Roh himself.

South Korean society has also done its part. The cold-war passions that once pitted leftist students against the ultraconservative military have ebbed; these days, students tend to be more interested in finding jobs than staging protests. Formerly radical trade unions have grown more moderate. A remarkably broad and vibrant network of civic organizations now helps ensure citizen participation in the government. The media have grown more assertive and a whole new crop of magazines and blogs has sprung up on the Internet (a powerful force in a country where 90 percent of homes have broadband access). And public attitudes show strong support for democracy. According to a recent survey by Asian Barometer, 82.7 percent of South Koreans disagreed with the statement "We should get rid of Parliament and elections and have a strong leader decide things," compared with 80 percent in Japan. Even more significantly, 88 percent of South Koreans disagreed with the statement "No opposition party should be allowed to compete for power," compared with 67 percent in Japan, and 73 percent in Taiwan and Thailand.

But the biggest changes are visible in the political sphere. Twenty years after the People Power movement forced the military to submit to popular elections, there are signs of progress everywhere. Consider Roh's opponents, who are enjoying his current troubles with glee. Not so long ago, South Korea's right wing was dominated by the military and its allies. Today, however, that role is being filled by the Grand National Party (GNP), the conservative opposition group that has proved its democratic bona fides by fairly contesting—and losing—the last two presidential votes. The military has been under full civilian control for some time and shows little interest in changing the status quo.

Meanwhile, the country's democracy is becoming truly liberal for the first time. Even after South Korea started holding elections in the late 1980s, it remained dominated by larger-than-life figures who built their power on their individual appeal. The country's first democratic leaders, known as the Three Kims—Presidents Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil—governed through force of personality and cozy ties with businessmen and regional elites. Political parties played little role; the Kims created and discarded such organizations at whim. Small wonder that modern-day South Koreans often refer to former holders of the country's highest office as "imperial presidents."

Today, however, says Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University and former teacher of Roh's, "political institutions enjoy a very high degree of authority. There won't be any more imperial presidencies." And that's due largely to reforms made by the Kims themselves. Kim Young Sam, for example, depoliticized the military, police, intelligence services and other powerful agencies such as the tax office, which past presidents had used to attack their enemies. As a result, says Gong Sung Jin, a leading member of the GNP in Parliament, such "power agencies" "have been politically neutralized." Kim also curtailed money laundering and reduced the huge underground economy. Kim Dae Jung further reduced corruption and the role of money in politics—in part by giving South Korea one of the world's most rigorous campaign-finance laws. Perhaps most important, he also worked hard to bridge the regional divide in the country's politics by bringing western supporters into a government long dominated by eastern elites.

By all accounts, a robust system of legal checks and balances—absent under the imperial presidents—has now taken root. Roh helped establish the supremacy of due process by prohibiting and punishing government abuse of South Korea's security laws. Indeed, Roh deserves much credit for Korea's newly healthy state, something even his enemies grudgingly admit. This is somewhat ironic, given that Roh came to office looking like another charismatic populist. Early on, he promised to stage a full-fledged assault on the country's conservative elite, proudly playing up his own relative lack of formal education (he has a high-school education).

But he never showed imperial ambitions, and his confrontational style only dramatized the new checks on the president's power. Parliament, for example, proved its muscle by impeaching him in 2004. The Constitutional Court then stepped in to override Parliament's decision after prolonged but independent deliberation, showing how strong the third branch of government had become. The episode also demonstrated how stable as a whole South Korea has grown: although it lacked a president for 63 days, its economy kept calm and there were no security or crime problems. Various ministries dutifully went about their jobs and the people patiently waited for the final ruling.

Some argue that Roh's greatest contribution has been his efforts to bring the presidency down to the level of common people. Despite his charisma, he's generally tried to act humbly. Soon after his election, for example, he conducted a nationally televised debate with dozens of young prosecutors opposed to his plan to reduce their powers—complete with raw give-and-take so sharp that Roh complained of feeling "insulted." It was a spectacle unlike anything the country had ever witnessed.

Not that Roh has been getting much credit for his efforts. Voters are understandably more focused on his perceived economic mismanagement and sometimes chaotic style. Critics argue that his erratic behavior—he complains about his job and has threatened to quit—and his anti-elitist rhetoric have diminished the standing of the presidency and hurt South Korea's reputation. Conservatives chide him for throwing out the baby with the bath water: "In the process of dismantling authoritarianism," says Yang Sung Chul, a former ambassador to the United States, "he has undermined the authority of the presidential office itself."

But even Roh's rough style has profited the country by reinforcing its two-party system. His polarizing rhetoric, say experts, contributed to the formation of solid liberal and conservative camps by forcing moderates to take sides. Parties now stand for something more than the personality of their leaders. Opinion polls show fairly consistent and broad support for a left-of-center coalition to oppose the GNP, meaning that even if the Uri Party collapses, a similar organization would soon take its place. It's clear what that new party would stand for: an expanded social-welfare system, tougher rules on business conglomerates, more reconciliation with Pyongyang and more independence from Washington.

As this suggests, voters in the next election won't face a choice just between personalities but also between platforms. That seems to be exactly what they want: asked about his preference in the upcoming presidential contest, 42-year-old Yum Jong Suk, a school director from Busan, responds, "I'll look at personalities, but I'll look at the people around them as well. That's why the party's important—because one person can't do everything."

A GNP victory would mean an end to a decade of liberal domination and a more pro-business attitude in Seoul. The GNP would probably also strive to repair ties with Washington. But whoever wins, greater stability should be the outcome. "Our past elections were winner-take-all," says political scientist Hahm—leading to a volatile and destructive political culture. "Political retaliation was rampant before. Not just losers, but predecessors were [also] attacked. This time, losers and winners will share [power]."

This, too, is thanks to party reforms made under Roh. To limit their strength and force power-sharing, presidents are now prohibited from doubling as party officials (as the imperial Kims often did). Even the GNP is now vowing to force its leaders to share power after presidential primaries—another recent innovation—are conducted later this year. To stabilize the two-party system, candidates are also prohibited from running on another ticket if they try but fail to secure a party's presidential nomination.

Indeed, the largest significance of this year's election will be as a litmus test of just how mature South Korea's politics has become. After all, there's no better yardstick for the efficacy of democracy than the smooth transfer of power from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other—something that even Japan has managed but once in the past half century.

The only drawback to South Korea's new politics may be a noticeable decline in drama. Though things could still get ugly this year, Hahm argues that epic presidential contests—pitting larger-than-life figures against each other in struggles in which the loser faced likely prosecution and public humiliation—may soon be a thing of the past. "Korean presidential elections have always been exciting," he says with a laugh. The good news for Korea is, they now seem likely to get a lot more boring.