South Korean democratization

A comparative empirical appraisal 1

Authored by: Jung Kim

Routledge Handbook of Democratization in East Asia

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138838741
eBook ISBN: 9781315733869
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315733869.ch3

 

Abstract

The literature on South Korean democratization is copious, providing us analytic, historical narratives on zigzagged democratization processes or the ordered systematic evaluation of uneven democratic achievements of this polity. 2 Among others, Adesnik and Kim (2013), Chu and Im (2013), and Im (2010) represent a subset of the most recent notable contributions to the edited collections that have a wide audience in the field. This chapter attempts to appraise the evolution of South Korea’s democracy, departing from these noble scholarly traditions not because their works are irrelevant, but because such a departure can complement their work.

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South Korean democratization

Introduction

The literature on South Korean democratization is copious, providing us analytic, historical narratives on zigzagged democratization processes or the ordered systematic evaluation of uneven democratic achievements of this polity. 2 Among others, Adesnik and Kim (2013), Chu and Im (2013), and Im (2010) represent a subset of the most recent notable contributions to the edited collections that have a wide audience in the field. This chapter attempts to appraise the evolution of South Korea’s democracy, departing from these noble scholarly traditions not because their works are irrelevant, but because such a departure can complement their work.

The first departure is from the tradition of single- or small-number comparative studies to that of a large-number comparative one. While scholars of South Korean democratization have produced a substantial number of studies on the issue, most existing works are single- or small-number comparative case studies. Recognizing the costs of diminishing in-depth analysis, this chapter puts the case of South Korean democratization in wider comparative perspective to enlarge the empirical width. Second, it employs empirical data that travels across space and time relatively freely to broaden the comparative scope of analysis, acknowledging the costs of diminishing context-sensitivity of local data derived solely from South Korean sources. Whenever it is relevant, this chapter endeavors to place our case in the cross-national context with comparable empirical data to estimate the accurate location of South Korea’s democracy with precise measures.

With these methodological switches, this chapter traces the evolution of South Korea’s democracy by focusing on two interconnected questions: (1) what most aptly characterizes South Korean democratization; and (2) why has South Korea’s democracy evolved as it has.

The next section assesses South Korean democratization with an emphasis on descriptive inference. To bring order to the discussion, it proposes a conceptual scheme that generates three distinctive characterizations: democratic completion, democratic erosion, and democratic stagnation. It conducts a comparative empirical study to examine the validity of each portrayal with empirical data from other fellow Third Wave democracies. It shows that South Korean democratization is characterized by neither democratic completion nor democratic erosion. Interpretations of empirical evidence supports that the most suitable description of South Korean democratization is democratic stagnation. The penultimate section deals with what best accounts for democratic stagnation in South Korea. Decomposing democracy into the elements of contestation and accountability, it uncovers the uneven development between the two components of democracy. It also examines the validity of the constitutional design hypothesis and of the party system hypothesis in explaining the accountability deficit in South Korean democratization. The concluding section finds that South Korea’s democratic stagnation is attributable to the political party system that remains under-institutionalized.

Descriptive assessments of South Korean democratization

Contending characterizations

For students of democratization, the evolution of South Korea’s democracy seems to defy an easy characterization. Some confidently qualify it as a fully consolidated “miraculous” democracy (Diamond 2013; Chu and Im 2013; Hahm 2008). Typically, Hahm (2008) argues that “South Korea’s democratic development was made possible through pact-making between unlikely political partners,” so that “there are still areas in which democratization and liberalization need to make more progress, but the foundations of a liberal-democratic order have been consolidated” (141).

Others are somewhat ambivalent about its status, claiming that it is “at a crossroads” between democratic development and decay (Heo 2013; Yun and Min 2012; Kim 2012; Im 2010). For instance, Kim (2012) insists that whether underdeveloped political parties prove to be “a temporary problem in an evolving innovative experiment with creating a new type of democracy,” or “a fatal flaw that will undermine and potentially unravel South Korean democracy, remains to be seen” (61).

Still others anxiously declare a “crisis” in South Korean democracy, as a serious decline in democratic performance has been detected (Haggard and You 2015; Kang and Kang 2014; You 2014; Choi 2012). Among others, You (2014) contends that “whereas South Korea has been widely considered a ‘consolidated democracy,’ it has experienced deterioration in freedom of expression and overall civil liberties during the past few years, rendering its liberal democracy in serious jeopardy” (35). All in all, it appears that the scholarly discussion on South Korean democratization is thrown into disarray.

To bring order to the chaos in understanding how South Korea’s democracy has evolved, building on Schedler (2010), it is apposite to propose a conceptual map of the democratization process with four distinct regime types. Figure 3.1 illustrates a graphical representation of a one-dimensional continuum of democratization process in which an authoritarian regime, which has no attributes of democracy at all, is at the one end of the continuum, and advanced democracy, which has all the attributes of democracy, is at the other. Departing from an authoritarian regime toward advanced democracy, a country may cross the first threshold of electoral democracy. Crossing the first threshold requires that the state have an essential attribute of democracy: contestation, or the extent to which government offices are filled by free and fair multiparty elections. Reaching the second threshold in the democratization process requires that the state acquire another attribute of democracy: accountability, or the extent to which government power is decentralized and constrained. 3

The strategy of cumulative conceptualization departs from the “consolidology” tradition that has suffered from conceptual confusion. Through this conceptualization, democratization can be characterized as the creation of a “combination of two sets of institutions – democratic ones that ensure that governments are accountable to popular choice, and liberal ones that provide for a rule of law” (Fukuyama 2010: 33). Accordingly, democratic outcomes can be evaluated by both (1) the extent to which political institutions “ensure the ultimate sovereignty of the people”; and (2) the extent to which political institutions limit “the day-to-day rule of the majority so that it does not infringe upon the rights of individuals or minorities” (Plattner 2010: 84). To yield a clear-cut conceptual separation, borrowing from Mazzuca (2007), let an “access-to-power” regime denote a set of institutions that governs contestation of the electoral process that constitutes the government and a “exercise-of-power” regime denote a set of institutions that governs accountability of the policy process that constrains the government. 4 This conceptual exercise reveals that so-called two-turnover test, which has been repeatedly employed to show evidence of democratic consolidation by scholars, is unlikely to meet our empirical purpose here since it is primarily designed to examine only the quality of the access-to-power regime without considering that of the exercise-of-power regime. 5

Democratic completion, erosion, or stagnation

Figure 3.1   Democratic completion, erosion, or stagnation

Source: Schedler (2010: 62) with author’s modifications

In light of the democratization process depicted in Figure 3.1, it is fitting to reorder the debates on the evolution of South Korea’s democracy. First, most students of democratization agree that South Korea can be located somewhere along the continuum between electoral democracy and liberal democracy. It is too difficult to precisely estimate South Korea’s location on the democratization continuum. However, it may be possible to reasonably determine an interval within which South Korea’s democratic development falls. Most scholars could agree that South Korea’s democratization is within an interval that does not extend as far as authoritarianism and advanced democracy, but that exceeds electoral democracy and falls short of liberal democracy. In particular, South Korea’s democratization is likely within an interval centered on M EL – the mid-point between electoral democracy and liberal democracy – and extends to M AE – the mid-point between authoritarian regime and electoral democracy – and M LA – the mid-point between liberal democracy and advanced democracy.

Second, scholars diverge on the direction of change in the evolution of South Korea’s democracy. Some argue that South Korea’s democracy is moving from M EL to M LA , cutting across the threshold of liberal democracy. For them, South Korea has progressed towards democratic completion with accumulating democratic attributes on top of contestation and accountability. For others who express concern over a crisis situation, South Korea is regressing from M EL to M AE , passing across the threshold of electoral democracy. That is to say, they hold that it has retreated in the direction of democratic erosion, losing democratic attributes such as accountability or even contestability. Last, for those who are uncertain about the direction in which South Korea is moving, it is swaying back and forth around M EL , fluctuating between electoral democracy and liberal democracy. In other words, it has oscillated between democratic completion and democratic erosion. 6

In a nutshell, scholars have proposed three contending characterizations of South Korean democratization: (1) democratic completion – a forward-looking movement from electoral democracy to liberal democracy and beyond; (2) democratic erosion – a retrograde movement from liberal democracy toward electoral democracy and beyond; or (3) democratic stagnation – an undetermined tendency to vacillate between electoral democracy and liberal democracy.

Empirical adjudication

Which characterization is the most apt portrayal of the evolution of South Korea’s democracy is ultimately an empirical question. To adjudicate on the debate, it is proper to employ two measures that are commonly used in the political science literature – Polity and Freedom House scores. Since the two indicators share the procedures to combine contestation and accountability measures in producing aggregate democracy scores, they nicely jibe with our conceptual map. Moreover, they measure distinctive facets of democracy: the Polity score underscores democracy’s institutional quality while the Freedom House score stresses democracy’s political attainments. As they differ in emphasis, it is empirically possible to appraise the evolution of South Korean democracy at both observed levels (Pop-Eleches 2007).

Specifically, the Polity score has two-dimensional institutional properties: (1) “the presence of institutions and procedures through which citizens can express effective preferences about alternative policies and leaders,” which corresponds to the institutional quality of access-to-power regime; and (2) “the existence of institutionalized constraints on the exercise of power by the executive” (Marshall, Gurr and Jaggers 2014: 14), which corresponds to the institutional quality of exercise-of-power regime. 7 Likewise, the Freedom House score consists of two-dimensional political outcomes: (1) the extent to which a country can “enjoy a wide range of political rights,” which indicates the political attainments of access-to-power regime; and (2) the extent to which a country can “enjoy a wide range of civil liberties,” which indicates the political attainments of exercise-of-power regime (Freedom House 2015). 8 Disaggregating the two composite indices into their separate components enables us to develop a more fine-tuned characterization of the democratization process.

Let us start with the descriptive assessment of South Korean democratization at the aggregate level. Figure 3.2 shows the longitudinal change in the level of South Korea’s democracy over the past three decades. To align our conceptual scheme with empirical measures, the Polity score of 6 and the Freedom House score of 2.5, respectively, are set as the threshold into electoral democracy and the Polity score of 10 and the Freedom House score of 1, respectively, as the establishment of liberal democracy. Concomitantly, the Polity score of 8 and the Freedom House score of 1.75, respectively, are matched to the status of M EL – the halfway point between electoral democracy and liberal democracy. First, the temporal trend of the Polity score shows that the institutional quality of South Korea’s democracy, after staying at the level of borderline electoral democracy during the first decade of democratization since 1988, rose to the level of M EL and remained unchanged up until 2014. In other words, the institutional quality of South Korea’s democracy, once it reached M EL , has not changed and could be moving either in the direction of democratic completion or in the direction of democratic erosion.

Second, the temporal trend of the Freedom House score indicates that the political attainments of South Korea’s democracy, departing from the level of borderline electoral democracy after the first four years of democratization since 1988, was first upgraded to the level closer to M EL in 1993, then improved past M EL to the level closer to liberal democracy in 2004, and finally downgraded across M EL to the level closer to electoral democracy in 2013 without any change up until 2014. Put simply, the political attainments of South Korea’s democracy, once it left the state of fledgling electoral democracy, have been oscillating around M EL without a definite course of direction. Ultimately, empirical evidence seems to demonstrate that democratic stagnation is a better characterization of South Korean democratization over time than either democratic completion or democratic erosion.

Level of democracy in South Korea, 1984–2014

Figure 3.2   Level of democracy in South Korea, 1984–2014

Note: Dashed line indicates the threshold score into democracy for each measure Sources: Polity score available at www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html; Freedom House score available at https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world (accessed on August 24, 2015)

Some may argue that the democratic stagnation that characterizes the evolution of South Korea’s democracy is not a particularly unique phenomenon among Third Wave democracies whose democratic experiences are relatively short. To examine the validity of this claim, I sample seventeen fellow Third Wave democracies in East Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. 9 The upper panel of Figure 3.3 illustrates information about the mean value of the Polity scores for the sample countries from their respective democratic transition until 2014 with a 95% confidence interval. States may be categorized reasonably as follows: (1) the group of countries that have progressed in the direction of democratic completion – Bulgaria, Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Taiwan, and Uruguay; (2) the group of countries that have stagnated at the equidistance between electoral democracy and liberal democracy – Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Korea; and (3) the group of countries that have degenerated in the direction of democratic erosion – Peru and Thailand. 10

Likewise, the lower panel of Figure 3.3 shows information about the mean value of the Freedom House score of sample countries from their respective democratic transition until 2014 with 95% confidence interval. Again, states are categorized as follows: (1) the cluster of nations that have moved toward democratic completion – Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Taiwan, and Uruguay; (2) the cluster of nations that have oscillated between electoral democracy and liberal democracy – Argentina, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Romania, and South Korea; and (3) the cluster of nations that have moved toward democratic erosion – Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, and Thailand. 11

Level of democracy in Third Wave democracies

Figure 3.3   Level of democracy in Third Wave democracies

Note: The level of each democracy is estimated by calculating the mean value of the Polity score and of the Freedom House score with 95% confidence interval from the year of democratic transition until 2014 Source: See Figure 3.2

Combining both findings into a three-by-three matrix for taxonomical purposes generates Table 3.1, which classifies variants of democratization outcomes in our sample Third Wave democracies along two dimensions – institutional quality and political attainments. It seems clear that democratic stagnation is far from universal among younger Third Wave democracies. On the contrary, a majority of countries have reached liberal democracy on both dimensions – Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Taiwan, and Uruguay – or at least on the dimension of institutional quality – Bulgaria, Mongolia, and Romania. It appears that characterizing South Korean democratization as democratic completion has little empirical foundation. At the same time, the characterization of the evolution of South Korea’s democracy as democratic erosion is also empirically unfounded. Unlike those countries that have regressed into authoritarian regimes on both dimensions – Peru and Thailand – or at least on the dimension of political attainments – Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and the Philippines – South Korea’s democracy has never crossed the threshold into the zone of non-democracy. In short, along with the Argentine case, South Korean democratization is most aptly characterized as democratic stagnation.

Table 3.1   Variants of democratization outcomes in Third Wave democracies

Political Attainments

Democratic

Completion

Democratic

Stagnation

Democratic

Erosion

Institutional Quality

Democratic Completion

Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Taiwan, Uruguay

Bulgaria, Mongolia, Romania

Democratic Stagnation

Argentina, South Korea

Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines

Democratic Erosion

Peru, Thailand

Note: Author’s classification based on Figures 3.2 and 3.3

Causal assessments of South Korean democratization

Constitutional design

Characterizing the evolution of South Korea’s democracy as being in a state of democratic stagnation begs an obvious question: what can account for its undetermined oscillation between electoral democracy and liberal democracy over the past nearly thirty years? A convenient starting point for our analysis is the finding in the previous section that democracy’s stagnant institutional quality is tightly coupled with democracy’s stagnant political attainments in the country. To elaborate on institutional sources of political outcomes, borrowing the “partial regime” approach from Schmitter (2010), it is appropriate to break down empirical measures into their constituent parts – contestation and accountability in the Polity score and political rights and civil liberties in the Freedom House score – from 1988 to 2014 in South Korea. Figure 3.4 illustrates the results.

First, except for the most recent two years, the temporal trend of political rights, which is shown in the lower-left panel with a highest value of 0.5, roughly corresponds to that of contestation, which is shown in the upper-left panel with a maximum value of 6. That is to say, as the institutional quality of the access-to-power regime improves by two points, political attainments of access-to-power regime reach the highest status. This temporal change implies that, on the dimension of access-to-power regime, South Korea’s democracy had actually moved in the direction of democratic completion until recently. 12

Second, the temporal trend of civil liberties, which is shown in the lower-right panel with a highest value of 0.5, except for the earlier years, roughly corresponds to that of accountability, which is shown in the upper-right panel with maximum value of 4. To put it differently, as the institutional quality of the exercise-of-power regime remains unmoved at the intermediate level, so does political attainment of exercise-of-power regime. This temporal non-change suggests that the strong tendency of stasis in South Korean democratization observed at the aggregate level has mostly stemmed from the exercise-of-power regime.

Decomposition of democracy scores in South Korea, 1988–2014

Figure 3.4   Decomposition of democracy scores in South Korea, 1988–2014

Source: See Figure 3.2

In short, the decomposition of our empirical measures provides a critical clue to solve the puzzle: democratic stagnation does not result from the institutional improvement of access-to-power regime that governs the contestation of electoral process that constitutes the government; rather it is rooted in the institutional stasis of the exercise-of-power regime that governs the accountability of policy process, which constrains the government. 13

This finding prompts the question of uneven democratic development between assess-to-power regime and exercise-of-power regime: why have South Koreans underachieved in the ideal of limited government while they have overachieved in the ideal of popular government?

Some may contend that the accountability deficit of South Korea’s democracy is essentially derived from a constitutional design that delegates extremely strong power to the executive vis-à-vis the legislature and the judiciary in the separation-of-powers system. For instance, in answering the question of why executives are capable of exercising strong discretion, Haggard and You (2015) claim that “the constitution gives the president relatively strong powers vis-à-vis both other branches of government” (177). Likewise, Kasuya (2013), in a comparative analysis of the presidential systems in nine Asian countries, reveals that “the South Korean president is the strongest in terms of legislative powers” (22). Moreover, reviewing various aspects of constitutional and political reforms during democratization, Park (2010) concludes that “the critical limitations of South Korean democracy came from the constitutional system itself, not from the representative politics… without the fundamental reform of the constitutional system and presidential power, any kind of political reforms including election, party and national assembly are not meaningful” (385). 14

To scrutinize the empirical foundation of these arguments, it is apt to conduct a comparative analysis of the constitutional power of executives vis-à-vis legislatures and judiciaries in Third Wave democracies using data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project. 15

To interpret the results illustrated in Figure 3.5, it is crucial to recognize that the central trade-off in constitutional design is often characterized as being between the efficiency of executive and the checks-and-balances of legislative and judiciary. The efficiency gains in moving from weak to strong executive power yield increasing accountability costs, holding legislative or judicial power constant. Likewise, the accountability gains in moving from weak to strong legislative or judicial power generate efficiency costs, holding the level of the executive power constant.

To minimize the tradeoff between efficiency and accountability, constitutional design should avoid two extremes: (1) extreme balance of powers: either too strong an executive with too strong a legislature or judiciary, which can produce policy stalemate, or too weak an executive with too weak a legislature or judiciary, which can produce policy ineffectiveness; and (2) extreme asymmetry of powers: either too strong an executive with too weak a legislature or judiciary, which can result in dominance of the executive, or too weak an executive with too strong a legislature or judiciary, which can immobilize the executive’s policy agenda. Avoiding these two extremes enables us to identify a “sweet spot” in the design of constitutions (Carey and Hix 2011).

Figure 3.5 presents an illustration of this idea with empirical data. First, the left panel shows the constitutional power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature among eighteen Third Wave democracies. The x axis denotes executive power ranging from 2 (Taiwan) to 7 (Romania), with a mean of 4.8 and 95% confidence interval from 4.2 to 5.4. The y axis denotes legislative power ranging from .14 (Thailand) to .52 (Bulgaria), with a mean of .36 and 95% confidence interval from .33 to .40. The rectangle made by the intersections of dashed lines, which indicate 95% confidence intervals of executive and legislative powers, represents the sweet spot in constitutional design. This sweet spot is the location that minimizes the tradeoff between efficiency and accountability. Most countries that have moved toward democratic completion on both dimensions of institutional quality and political attainments – Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Uruguay – are located very close to the sweet spot. The only exception is Taiwan. In this sense, the location of South Korea is surprising: it is the only country that falls in the sweet spot in the constitutional design of inter-branch relations between the executive and the legislature.

Constitutional power of executive vis-à-vis legislative and judiciary in Third Wave democracies

Figure 3.5   Constitutional power of executive vis-à-vis legislative and judiciary in Third Wave democracies

Note: Solid line indicates the mean value of each measure and dashed lines indicate 95% confidence interval of each measure Source: Comparative Constitutions Projects Rankings available at http://comparativeconstitutionsproject.org/ccp-rankings/ (accessed on August 24, 2015)

Second, the right panel displays the constitutional power of the executive vis-à-vis judiciary among eighteen Third Wave democracies. Whereas the x axis denotes the same at the left panel, the y axis denotes judicial power, with results ranging from 1 (Romania, Thailand, and Uruguay) to 6 (Argentina and Bulgaria), with a mean of 3.5 and 95% confidence interval from 2.7 to 4.2. The rectangle made by the intersections of dashed lines, which indicate 95% confidence intervals of executive and judicial powers, represents the ideal constitutional design of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. While Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are located close to the sweet spot, Taiwan and Uruguay seem to be exceptions. Once again, the location of South Korea is surprising: it is the only country that falls in the sweet spot in the constitutional design of inter-branch relations between executive and judiciary. In a nutshell, among fellow Third Wave democracies, South Korea has the most desirable constitutional design of separation of powers in terms of minimizing the tradeoff between efficiency and accountability.

Party system

If South Korea’s separation-of-powers system had been working as the constitutional design stipulates, the problem of the accountability deficit might not have been as severe as to render its democratization stagnant. There emerges a puzzle: why has a constitutional design that embraces checks-and-balances mechanisms translated into the bad outcome of an accountability deficit in South Korea? This puzzle leads to the question of the causal agents that condition, shape, or even distort the relations between institutions and outcomes. In modern democracy, political institutions are connected to political outcomes by political parties, and South Korea is not an exception: political parties have been the double agents of electoral processes and policy processes in the democratic life cycle (Lupu 2015). What makes South Korea’s parties exceptional is that they have been more agents of electoral contestation and less agents of accountability (Hellmann 2011: 34–66).

The identification of two simple patterns confirms the asymmetric roles of parties in the democratic process. First, every president since democratic transition has dissolved his or her party that was created for the electoral battle before his or her inauguration. President Roh Tae-woo broke up the Democratic Justice Party, which was the organizational foundation for winning the 1987 presidential election, crafting the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) in 1990. President Kim Young-sam sacked DLP, building the New Korea Party in 1995. Subsequently, President Kim Dae-jung dismissed the National Congress for New Politics, which was the organizational base for winning the 1997 presidential election, making New Millennium Democratic Party (NMD) in 2000. In 2003, President Roh Moo-hyun terminated NMD, constructing the Uri Party. Most recently, President Lee Myung-bak witnessed the reorganization of the Grand National Party, which was the organizational asset for winning the 2007 presidential election, to assemble the Saenuri Party in 2012.

In short, no president in the democratic period has ended his or her term with the same party to which he or she belonged at inauguration. Political parties are created as agents of electoral contestation, but because they are frequently demolished and reformulated, they do not survive long enough to constrain presidential policy activities. As a result, they are unable to hold the executive accountable. When parties as the agents of contestation are systematically incongruent with parties as agents of accountability, it is highly unlikely to perfect the institutional quality of exercise-of-power regime that shapes the accountability aspect of democracy.

Second, except for President Lee, every president elected since the democratic inception has been forced to leave his or her governing party while in office. President Roh Tae-woo left DLP in 1992 with 160 days remaining in his term. In 1997, President Kim Young-sam departed from GNP with 110 days remaining. President Kim Dae-jung withdrew from NMD in 2002 with 295 days remaining in his term. Finally, President Roh Moo-hyun left the United New Democratic Party that absorbed the Uri Party in 2007 with 362 days remaining. (Park 2010: 388). In sum, presidents have governed South Korea without the support of their political parties for more than two and a half years of their terms. When there are no institutional connections between presidents and governing parties, it is simply not possible to hold the executive accountable.

What has made “irresponsible party government” a norm in South Korea? As Schmitter (2010) points out, “many a new democracy has ‘shocked the experts’ by consolidating as a regime without having first consolidated its party system” (24), and South Korea is not an exception. What makes South Korea’s party system distinctive is its extreme under-institutionalization. As Wong (2015) aptly summarizes, “the political party system in Korea is unstable, and lines of electoral competition are inconsistent, unpredictable, and not enduring” (275).

To gauge the degree of party system institutionalization, it is not an unreasonable idea to employ one of the most commonly used indicators in the field of political science: electoral volatility. Electoral volatility calculates variation in aggregate party vote shares from one election to another. Low levels of electoral volatility reflect a stable pattern of competition among political parties and indicate that citizens are able to hold parties accountable. Contrastingly, high levels of electoral volatility demonstrate that parties are not held accountable to citizens. As a result, the birth of new parties, demise of existing parties, party switching, mergers, and party splits are rampant. (Hicken and Kuhonta 2015).

Figure 3.6, taken from Mainwaring, Gervasoni, and España-Nájera (forthcoming), displays the electoral volatility scores for South Korea alongside those of fourteen other Third Wave democracies. 16 The total volatility score is the sum of the within-system volatility and extra-system volatility. The former captures votes that are transferred from one existing party to another. The latter displays extra-system volatility, which occurs when shares of the votes are captured by new parties. According to Powell and Tucker (2013), while within-system volatility is “considered to be a healthy component of representative democracy, and essentially reallocates power between political actors that are already, by and large, a relevant part of the political process,” extra-system volatility is “much more closely associated with party system instability, and thus can pose very different challenges and problems for anyone trying to interact with political actors” (124). By disaggregating the total volatility into its separate components, it is possible to identify the source of aggregate volatility.

South Korea’s total volatility score indicates that party system institutionalization is atypically low. Additionally, within-system volatility is so low that little of the total electoral volatility in South Korea is explained by healthy inter-party competition. As such, extra-system electoral volatility, which is the highest of Third Wave democracies examined, is the primary source of unhealthy and unstable inter-party electoral competition. 17

By comparison, take the case of Hungary. In examining the high level of total electoral volatility, it might appear that the party system in Hungary is just as unstable as the system in South Korea. However, disaggregating the total electoral volatility into its constituent parts tells a different story. Hungary’s electoral volatility is mostly derived from healthy inter-party competition and very little can be attributed to extra-system electoral volatility. In other words, although South Korea and Hungary share the same level of electoral volatility, they differ in nature of volatility.

Electoral volatility in Third Wave democracies

Figure 3.6   Electoral volatility in Third Wave democracies

Ultimately, in South Korea, the lack of government accountability is not due to the separation-of-powers system. This indicates that one should not always assume that formal institutions are the primary cause of political outcomes (Levitsky and Murillo 2009). Improvement of accountability requires that political parties hold the government in check. When a party system with strong institutions structures the policy process, politically dominant actors cannot unilaterally and arbitrarily abuse power. Many advanced democracies have succeeded in constraining overextensions of executive power merely with sufficient electoral pressure (Helmke and Rosenbluth 2009). It is a crucial aspect of democratization that countries develop political parties that both serve an electoral role and hold the government accountable. This is the missing link in South Korean democratization that has prevented it from escaping democratic stagnation.

Conclusion

This chapter has discussed various characterizations of South Korean democratization, proposing a conceptual scheme that captures the direction of democratic movement from democratic erosion to democratic competition. It also conducted a comparative empirical analysis of South Korea’s democratization, which discovered that it is characterized neither by democratic completion nor by democratic erosion. This revealed that South Korean democratization is oscillating between electoral democracy and liberal democracy.

The characterization of South Korean democratization as democratic stagnation raised the question of what accounts for such a movement. Democratic stagnation is mainly due to the under-development of institutions that regulate accountability as compared to institutions that regulate contestation. To explain why there was uneven development between democratic contestation and democratic accountability, two sets of comparative empirical studies were conducted. One is on the strength of executive vis-à-vis legislative or judiciary authority, rejecting the argument that South Korea’s democratic accountability deficit derives from the separation-of-powers constitutional design. Another is on the relationship between the degree of party system institutionalization and the level of democracy, confirming the claim that South Korea’s democratic stagnation is caused by an under-institutionalized party system that prevents parties from being able to hold elected officials accountable.

Notes

For comments on an earlier version of this chapter, the author is grateful to Tun-jen Cheng, Yun-han Chu, and Byung-Kook Kim, as well as to Jin Seok Bae, Woojin Kang, and Jiyeoun Song. He acknowledges the financial support of East Asia Institute for this study.

A representative sample of studies on South Korean democratization can be found in chapters of edited volumes including Diamond and Shin (1999); Diamond and Kim (2000); and Kim (2003).

For the discussion that advocates the minimalist strategy of conceptualization of democracy, see Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland (2010). In addition to contestation and accountability, you can include attributes of democracy such as participation, deliberation, and political equality if you take a maximal strategy of conceptualization in order to define advanced democracy (Coppedge 2012: 11–23). For the cumulative strategy of concept formation, see Gerring (2012: 131–140).

Originally in Mazzuca (2007: 45), an “access-to-power” regime entails “going upward from the society to the state, involves the efforts of groups in society to gain control over state positions – the access side of politics,” while an “exercise-of-power” regime entails “going downward from the state to society, refers to the use of political power to align the behavior of social groups with the order created by the state – the exercise side.”

On this point, Fukuyama’s following account is suggestive: “the idea that there’s a ratchet effect – if you have two elections with turnover, that gets you to democracy for good and you’re not going to slip back – just doesn’t make sense theoretically, and it’s belied by what actually happens in some countries” (Diamond et al. 2014: 93).

Originally in Schedler (2010: 60–63), democratic erosion, which is a move from liberal democracy to electoral democracy, is a process distinctive from democratic breakdown, which is a move from electoral democracy to an authoritarian regime. Likewise, democratic completion, which is a move from electoral democracy to liberal democracy, is a process different from democratic deepening, which a move from liberal democracy to advanced democracy. For an application of Schedler’s conceptual innovation to the comparative evaluation of Taiwanese and South Korean democratizations, see Chu and Im (2013).

Even though Marshall, Gurr, and Jaggers (2014: 14) accept “the guarantee of civil liberties to all citizens in their daily lives and in acts of political participation” as one of the three essential elements of democracy, they “do not include coded data on civil liberties” to compute the Polity score.

According to Freedom House (2015), whereas political rights reflects the extent in which “Candidates who are elected actually rule, political parties are competitive, the opposition plays an important role and enjoy real power, and the interests of minority groups are well represented in politics and government,” civil liberties indicate the extent in which countries “have an established and generally fair legal system that ensures the rule of law (including an independent judiciary), allow free economic activity, and tend to strive for equality of opportunity for everyone, including women and minority groups.”

The sample countries include Indonesia, Mongolia, Philippine, Taiwan, and Thailand from East Asia; Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay from Latin America; and Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia from Eastern Europe. The years of democratic inauguration of our sample vary ranging from 1980 of Peru to 1999 of Indonesia in the Polity dataset and from 1980 of Peru to 2005 of Indonesia in the Freedom House dataset, respectively. Correlational coefficients between the year of democratic transition and the mean value of each score are 0.155 in the Polity dataset and -0.115 in the Freedom House dataset.

Under the Polity score scheme, the estimation formula is as follows: (1) a country moves in the direction of democratic completion if the lower bound of 95% confidence interval does not fall below 8; (2) a country moves in the direction of democratic erosion if the lower bound of 95% confidence interval falls below 6; and (3) a country shows the tendency of democratic stagnation if the lower bound of 95% confidence interval falls between 6 and 8.

Under the Freedom House score scheme, the estimation formula is as follows: (1) a nation moves toward democratic completion if the upper bound of 95% confidence interval does not rise above 1.75; (2) a nation moves toward democratic erosion if the upper bound of 95% confidence interval rise above 2.5; and (3) a nation reveals the propensity of democratic stagnation if the upper bound of 95% confidence interval falls between 1.75 and 2.5.

In fact, among students of South Korean democratization, despite competing views on the characterization that we have reviewed, there is a solid consensus on the point that electoral contestation has become “the only game in town,” generating self-enforcing compliance with the outcome from all relevant political actors. For instance, according to Chu and Im (2013), who are proponents of the democratic completion argument, “since 1987, elections have been held regularly, and the overwhelming majority of Korean elites and average citizens believe that the only way to take power is through free and fair electoral competition” (118). Likewise, Kang and Kang (2014), who are advocates of the democratic erosion claim, acknowledge that “there is no doubt that the two peaceful power rotations – the formations of the Kim Dae-jung and Lee Myung-bak governments – have made elections the only game in town in South Korea’s democracy” (274).

This finding nicely echoes with that of Kang and Kang (2014) who, taking the partial regime approach to South Korean democratization, show that “there have been significant deteriorations in the quality of [other] partial regimes [rule of law, vertical accountability, and horizontal accountability] even though the stability of the electoral regime has been institutionalized” (290). Research on cross-national public opinions on democratization also find out that South Korea, conceiving democracy more as electoral contestation, shows comparatively lower concerns about liberal elements of democracy. See Park and Chang (2013) and Mikami and Inoguchi (2010).

For dissenting views, see Cheibub and Limongi (2014) and Asaba (2013) on interbranch relations between executive and legislative, and Ginsburg (2010) on interbranch relations between executive and judiciary in South Korea.

Among many indicators available, I choose the Comparative Constitutions Project Rankings primarily because its scores are comparable across different forms of governments. The data is available at http://comparativeconstitutionsproject.org/ccp-rankings/ (accessed on 24 August 2015). According to the website, (1) executive power ranges from 0–7 and captures the presence or absence of seven important aspects of executive lawmaking: (a) the power to initiate legislation; (b) the power to issue decrees; (c) the power to initiate constitutional amendments; (d) the power to declare states of emergency; (e) veto power; (f) the power to challenge the constitutionality of legislation; and (g) the power to dissolve the legislature; (2) legislative power, capturing the formal degree of power assigned to the legislature by the constitution, is simply the mean of the thirty-two binary elements, with higher numbers indicating more legislative power and lower numbers indicating less legislative power; and (3) judicial independence is an additive index ranging from 0–6 that captures the constitutional presence or absence of six features thought to enhance judicial independence: (a) whether the constitution contains an explicit statement of judicial independence; (b) whether the constitution provides that judges have lifetime appointments; (c) whether appointments to the highest court involve either a judicial council or two (or more) actors; (d) whether removal is prohibited or limited so that it requires the proposal of a supermajority vote in the legislature, or if only the public or judicial council can propose removal and another political actor is required to approve such a proposal; (e) whether removal is explicitly limited to crimes and other issues of misconduct, treason, or violations of the constitution; and (f) whether judicial salaries are protected from reduction.

For technical specifics about the formula to calculate various volatility scores, see Powell and Tucker (2013). Due to data availability, among fellow seventeen Third Wave democracies, Indonesia, Peru, and Thailand are excluded.

The observed scores for total volatility range from 13.9 (Chile) to 46.5 (Romania) with a mean of 30.7 and 95% confidence interval from 24.3 to 37.2. South Korea’s score of 36.6 is very close to the upper bound of confidence interval, which implies that the level of its party system institutionalization is atypically low when compared to fellow Third Wave democracies. The observed scores for within-system volatility range from 3.8 (Taiwan) to 30 (Poland) with a mean of 17.4 and 95% confidence interval from 13.2 to 21.5. South Korea’s score of 9.9 is outside the lower bound of the confidence interval, which indicates that healthy inter-party competition contributes to little of the total volatility in the country. Last, the observed scores for extra-system volatility range from 2.8 (Brazil) to 26.7 (South Korea) with a mean of 13.4 and 95% confidence interval from 8.5 and 18.2. South Korea’s extra-system volatility is the highest among fellow Third Wave democracies and far away from the upper bound of confidence interval.

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