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Postcard from South Korea: Reaffirming Democracy’s Value

Despite President Park's impeachment, the past four months revitalized Koreans’ engagement in the democratic process.

Article by Jieun Pyun March 24, 2017 //   4 minute read

Earlier this week, I stopped in my native country, South Korea, en route to Burma for the next session of the Liberty and Leadership Forum. As I reflect on the Bush Institute’s mission in Burma, helping Young Leaders realize their vision for a free and democratic society, I’m struck by the amazing transformation my own country has made. Today, South Korea is one of the world’s most vibrant democracies, but only 36 years ago that wasn’t true.

After the authoritarian leader President Park Jung Hee’s assassination in 1979, South Koreans’ desire for freedom and democracy mounted.  People believed that South Korea would soon have a democratic election and a new constitution more reflective of democratic values. 

Unfortunately, this “Seoul Spring” didn’t last long.  On May 16, 1980, a military coup d’état was carried out by general Jun Doo-hwan and the country fell under martial law.  Two days later, Koreans filled the streets, braving tanks and guns, to protest Jun Doo-hwan’s military government.  Hundreds were killed and wounded.

These protests were a crucial milestone in South Korea becoming the democracy it is today. 

Fast forward to October 24, 2016, and Koreans once again filled the streets. This time, though, it wasn’t to protest an authoritarian regime, but to defend the democracy previous generations had fought and died to achieve.  South Koreans had discovered that the sitting president, Park Geun-hye, was mired in corruption that allegedly included sharing confidential documents outside the government, bribery, and extortion.

Over several months, more than 10 million people – about 20% of South Korea’s population – protested President Park’s corruption and abuse of power. The violence of the 1980s gave way to peaceful protests that are the hallmark of a mature democracy:  They lit candles, sang songs, and delivered biting political satire of the administration. 

Responding to public demand, Parliament voted decisively to impeach President Park; a decision that the Constitutional Court upheld.  President Park became the country’s first democratically elected leader to be ousted from office. 

The past four months revitalized Koreans’ engagement in the democratic process. Young people who were indifferent towards politics learned about their parents’ sacrifices for democracy and wanted to become more involved.  Their newfound interest may manifest itself through the polls this May as it’s believed turnout for the emergency presidential elections will surpass 75%. 

It feels like a new “Seoul Spring” for democracy in South Korea. Instead of awakening to democratic values for the first time, however, it’s a revitalization of our commitment to ideals that make democratic societies great: limited government answerable to the people, a system of checks and balances, free people exercising their right to peacefully protest. Let our experience serve as a reminder to the world that once democracy takes root it demands perpetual civic engagement to remain strong. That is the price of freedom.

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