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Opinion

[Robert J. Fouser] South Korea’s post-pandemic future

The world begins 2021 with hope amid continuing despair. The roll out of vaccines in wealthy countries offers hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will wind down as the year moves along. This hope contrasts with the reality of rising cases that are pushing healthcare systems to their limit. More cases mean more deaths and social dislocation. The light at the end of the tunnel is bright, but distant.

Pondering the future offers a brief respite from the disquiet of the pandemic winter. At heart is the question of what sort of future we want. Through the ages, leaders have looked past crises to offer a vision for the future and a roadmap to get there. By nature, these efforts are idealistic, calling on the better angels in human nature. Idealism often hits the wall of reality and many of these efforts never come to fruition, of do so later in a different form.

South Korea is an interesting example of how visions for the future has driven public policy. The country has always done better in times of forward-looking leadership than in times of muddle-through politics. Forward-looking leadership set clear goals that people could rally around.

The two big visions running through South Korean history are prosperity and democracy. From the 1950s to the 1980s, these two visions shared a tense relationship. Dictators based their legitimacy on economic growth that offered hope of a better tomorrow, but they were intolerant of other views. Democracy advocates, many of whom suffered from the wrath of dictators dreamed of a free society that was as advanced politically as it was economically.

Democratization in 1987 brought an end to the long competition between these two visions. The new vision was that of a prosperous and democratic nation. Democratization, of course, did not happened overnight, and prosperity has faced periodic challenges, but vision has remained strong, and South Korea today is a prosperous democratic country that enjoys growing respect abroad.

So, what now? What vision does South Korea need for the post-pandemic era? The answer is simple: prosperity and democracy. The achievement of these visions does not mean that they are immune from challenges in the future. Nor does it mean that they do not need improvement.

Of the two visions, prosperity will face the most serious challenges in post-pandemic era. The global economy will improve as the pandemic fades, but the core challenge to South Korean prosperity remains the transformation from an export-led manufacturing economy to an information and knowledge economy. Failure to make this transformation will leave South Korea with a weak economic base as its population ages more rapidly.

As it has in other advanced countries, this transformation will create a large, alienated class ready to vent its anger at “the system” dominated by a class of highly educated knowledge workers. To date, the main divisions in South Korean politics have regional and generational, and a shift toward more class divisions would create new social stress. The current public rage of skyrocketing home prices foreshadows that stress.

Democracy, too, is always a work in progress. Democratization in 1987 was part of a wave of democratization that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s. That progress has since slowed and, in the 2010s, has begun to reverse. Democracy is facing challenges even in the US, once viewed as one of the most stable democracies. South Korea faced its own challenges as democracy was perceived to be under threat during the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

The idea of freedom is also facing challenges as governments used unprecedent amounts of state power during pandemic. Though the severity of the pandemic justified many of the measures, debate over the degree of state-enforced social distancing remains heated. The restrictions affected educated knowledge workers least, thus exacerbating class-based social divisions. South Korea mostly avoided this debate because restrictions were imposed quickly and reduced the spread, thus gaining public acceptance.

The pandemic has also raised awareness of the importance of local government. As national leaders talk, it was local officials who were on the front line interacting with citizens. In South Korea, the national government remains strong, but local autonomy has grown as part of the democratization process. Vibrant democracy depends on engaged citizens and responsive local government.

Prosperity and democracy live together; strengthening one strengthens the other and vice versa. South Korea knows this, but leadership is needed to articulate a vision for greater prosperity and deeper democracy. 


Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com -- Ed.
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