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[Park Sang-seek] Authoritarianism is No.1 illness in Korean society

I have received university education in both Korea and the US, majoring in English literature in Korea and political science in the US. Perhaps because of this, the differences between Western and Oriental civilizations have become my main academic interest. In most East Asian countries authoritarianism is one of the most distinguished traits of their cultures. This is particularly true of Korea. After liberation from Japanese colonialism in 1945, Korea was divided into two -- South and North Koreas. South Korea adopted western democracy as its political system and North Korea, communism. As far as North Korea is concerned, its communist system could fit into North Korean society because the communist system is by nature authoritarian and can be transplanted to North Korean society without serious difficulties, but the democratic system can hardly survive in an authoritarian culture. This is the reason why most Eastern and Western scholars agree that the transplantation of democracy to the East is very difficult.

Since the establishment of the Republic of Korea in the South, the country has gone through all kinds of political turmoil, mainly because Korean society has suffered from a serious problem of indigestion caused by the difficulties of practicing democracy on the soil of one of the most authoritarian societies in the world. South Koreans have so far experienced the Syngman Rhee civilian dictatorship, the three successive military dictatorships, and the four civilian democratic governments. President Moon Jae-in has inherited this civilian democratic government. Most scholars believe that if the democratically elected government rules a country three times successively, democracy is most likely to become a permanent system of government in that country. But a recent news report that the Park Geun-hye government faced with an imminent downfall contemplated a military rule under martial law tells us that such an optimistic view cannot be taken for granted.

My fear is that as long as authoritarian culture dominates Korean society, democracy in South Korea can hardly be rooted in Korean soil. As a matter of fact, authoritarianism is the No. 1 enemy to democracy in Korea. If democracy is undermined, South Korea loses its raison d’etre as a state, simply because democracy is the constitutional foundation of the Republic of Korea. Democracy can hardly prosper under authoritarian culture. Even heads of state are elected through a thorough democratic process, the people are likely to treat them like monarchs due to the highly authoritarian political culture in Korea. Most Western countries went through a long history of monarchy, but they overcame authoritarian political culture through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment Movement and as a result individual rights and freedoms became more important than any other rights. In contrast, Koreans have never been completely exposed to such a liberal political culture.

In my view, Korean culture is more authoritarian than any other culture. Some argue that Confucianism has created and perpetuated the Korean authoritarian culture, but China and Japan, both of which have been more or equally influenced by Confucianism, are much less authoritarian. The Korean language structure reflects Korean authoritarian culture very vividly. The Korean language consists of five types of expression to convey the identical meaning of a sentence: highest, higher, equal, lower, and lowest. People choose one from among these five types of expression according to a person’s age, the primordial group order, social status, seniority in educational, occupational and social organizations, etc. As far as I know, no other languages have this kind of sentence classification. When I visited Taiwan many years ago, I happened to meet cabinet members of the Taiwanese government and became almost dumbfounded to find that cabinet members talked to each other on a first name basis. I could not understand why China from which Confucianism originated has a much more egalitarian culture than Korea. Korean authoritarianism seems to be indigenous. The ruling class consisting of Confucian scholars of the Joseon era (1392-1910) built and consolidated the foundation of Korean authoritarian culture.

Some Koreans, including President Moon, seem to think that the Korean president is treated like a king because he has too much power, and that therefore presidential power should be reduced. Their view is partially right. But the more important reason is that authoritarian culture is so predominant in Korea that people think the president should be respected and treated as a powerful and charismatic person. In most non-Western countries this authoritarian culture has gradually weakened as Western civilization has replaced their traditional cultures. In contrast, although Korean traditional culture in general has been gradually weakening, its authoritarian trait has been much less affected by this trend.

I have no answer to the question why authoritarianism is still so strong in Korean society. One thing is clear: Democracy in Korea has been too fragile to root out authoritarian culture. As a result, authoritarian culture has persistently disrupted or hindered the development of democracy. Perhaps, South Koreans have suffered so much from chaotic power struggles among all kinds of political factions that they unconsciously prefer to or condone all kinds of authoritarian rule including military dictatorship.

Unless and until the Koreans replace authoritarian culture with democratic culture completely, it will be difficult for them to enjoy a more peaceful life. As long as authoritarian culture remains unchanged, government officials act like masters and superiors in business organizations maintain what the public calls “the gapjil” mentality (superiority complex). More importantly, what scholars call PDI (power distance index) is very high in Korean society. PDI refers to the tendency that people obey their superiors without questions. Koreans are so accustomed to authoritarian culture that they do not realize whether they act arbitrarily or not. If they do not replace the present culture with a civic culture, neither democracy nor civic public services will be possible.

Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a former chancellor of the National Diplomatic Academy in the Foreign Ministry and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe” and “Land of Tears.” -- Ed.