End of an era in East Asia

Chun Doo-hwan, former military ruler of South Korea, died from the effects of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 90 – only a month after his colleague and successor, Roh Tae-wu, who completed the country’s transition to democracy in the 1990s.

Chun seized power in 1979 in the period of confusion following the assassination of Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who had ruled since 1961. The following year, Chun ordered the brutal suppression of a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Gwangju, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, Chun gradually liberalised South Korea’s institutions, unwinding the authoritarian apparatus that Park had created. A rigged election in 1981 gave him a six-year term as president, but relatively free legislative elections were held in 1985; in 1987 further pro-democracy protests led to the adoption of a new democratic constitution and a free election for the presidency at the end of that year.

Roh, also a former general, won that election with 36.6% of the vote because the democratic opposition split its vote between rival candidates. But Roh did not attempt to turn the clock back to full military rule, and in 1992 the civilian Kim Young-sam convincingly won the election to succeed him. South Korea has been a stable democracy ever since.

Both Chun and Roh were later tried and convicted of corruption, treason and mutiny. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to 17 years imprisonment, but both were pardoned in 1997 following the election of Kim Dae-jung – whom Chun had previously had sentenced to death in 1980 but reprieved under pressure from the United States.

Roh, who had after all won a fair election, was to some extent rehabilitated and last month was given a state funeral. But Chun remained unrepentant over both the coup and the Gwangju massacre, and was never welcomed back into the fold. According to AP, a spokesperson for current president Moon Jae-in said that he “doesn’t plan to send mourning flowers or any official representative to pay respects.”

But Chun’s story is relevant to more than just his own country. He was the last survivor of a group of pro-western military dictators who littered the East Asian landscape in the second half of last century – both in the Asian “Tigers”, of which South Korea was the largest, and their would-be imitators such as Indonesia and Thailand.

Two generations of American policymakers gave aid and comfort to such rulers and mostly turned a blind eye to their corruption and brutality. Sometimes American intervention softened the edges of military rule, but mostly it was a geopolitical disaster, alienating many supporters of democracy and discrediting the cause of the “free world”. It’s a mistake that has since been repeated elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East.

There was much foolish commentary at the time (and some since) as to the supposed necessity of authoritarian rule for economic growth. In reality, anyone who looked could see that if anything the relationship was the reverse: even under Park and Chun, South Korea was a much freer country than North Korea, and not surprisingly performed much better economically.

Moreover, the most successful authoritarians were the ones who accepted their limits and allowed some measure of democratic freedom. Hence Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew died peacefully in his bed and left a functioning inheritance to his son, while the likes of Chun, Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos died in exile or disgrace.

The positive relationship between prosperity and democracy is too strong to be ignored. No doubt the causal mechanisms involved are complex and far from invariable; whether Taiwan and South Korea became richer because they liberalised or liberalised because they became richer may forever be an unanswerable question.

But let us never slip back into thinking that the men with guns are the way to the future.


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