Tag Archives: South Korea

Jörg Michael Dostal – South Korea: New President Moon Jae-in Promotes Constitutional Reform

This is  guest post by Jörg Michael Dostal, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, Korea.

Introduction: The ‘Imperial Presidency’

There is consensus in writings about South Korean politics (subsequently referred to as Korea) suggesting that the country’s ‘imperial presidency’ constitutes the major power centre. In the Korean context, the term ‘imperial’ is used to signify that the institution of the presidency, namely the president and his/her presidential office, enjoy dominance over the other political institutions, such as the prime minister (appointed by the president and approved by parliament), ministries and other state agencies. In the relationship between the presidency and Korea’s parliament (the National Assembly), the president also exercises strong direct and indirect control over legislation, via his right to appoint the state council (the government) which can put forward legislation and his ability to directly issue presidential decrees. Although parliament performs the role of principal legislator and must agree on the annual national budget as submitted by the executive branch headed by the president, its supervisory role is much diminished if the president’s party holds a parliamentary majority. In addition, the Korean president controls foreign policy-making, the state security institutions and the national military. Thus, in the Korean context the term ‘imperial presidency’ suggests the president’s concurrent control of domestic and foreign policy-making for which the current Korean Constitution of 1987 provides the enabling framework [1].

The Korean use of the term therefore differs from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s famous description of the US ‘imperial presidency’ that hinted at ‘executive excess’, namely offences against the balance of power as outlined in the US Constitution, such as presidential foreign policy-making based on inner circle decision-making without the involvement of Congress – e.g. the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. In the Korean case, the 1987 Constitution in fact facilitates presidential dominance and would require amendments in order to create a more balanced political system.

Korea’s Constitutional History

Overall, Korea’s political and constitutional history since 1948 can be divided into the periods of authoritarian rule – strongmen backed up by the military – between 1948 and 1987, briefly punctuated between 1960 and 1961 by a parliamentary republic, and the period since the transition to democracy in 1987. The earlier authoritarian periods are referred to as the First and the Third to Fifth Republics. The Second Republic, lasting for less than a year between 1960 and 1961, was Korea’s first effort at democratic governance while the current democratic Korea is referred to as the Sixth Republic. The first Korean Constitution was issued in 1948 and is partially influenced by the US example, although sections about the rights of the individual and the people as the source of all political authority have been ignored under the authoritarian regimes.

The 1948 Constitution has been amended nine times and revised four times, most recently in 1987. The earlier revisions mostly concerned procedural issues such as how the president should be elected and the duration of his time in office. The major past event in this respect was the 1972 ‘Yushin Constitution’ that facilitated the continuation of the rule of President Park Chung-hee for an unlimited number of six-year terms that came to an end due to his assassination in 1979. All constitutional provisions between 1948 and 1960 and from 1961 to 1987 were fictitious in providing a thin veneer of façade democracy while unchecked presidential power was always the dominant element in the authoritarian system.

Because of this, the most crucial constitutional amendment was the latest one dating from 1987 that provided for the competitive direct election of the president by the people in a single round plurality vote for a non-renewable five-year term in office. Since then, six presidents have entered and left office in five-year spells with the exception of the last one, Park Geun-hye (the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee). Her term in office started in 2013 and came to an end due to a citizens’ protest movement that took off in the autumn of 2016 in reaction to revelations about her abuse of office, namely allowing her confidante Choi Soon-sil to collect ‘donations’ from chaebols (Korean business conglomerates) for ‘foundations’, i.e. monies were extracted in exchange for influence paddling. This revelation, currently still under investigation alongside other charges, resulted in her impeachment by the National Assembly on 9 December 2016, a decision that was upheld by the Constitutional Court on 10 March 2017, ending her presidency. She was subsequently, on 30 March 2017, arrested to facilitate ongoing investigations by the prosecutor, and her arrest was extended for another six-month period on 13 October 2017.

Constitutional Reform

The new liberal President Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, elected on 9 May 2017, has announced that he intends to push for constitutional changes to reform the political system to uproot ‘deep-rooted irregularities accumulated over the last nine years’ [2]. He has further specified that he expects such changes to be subject to a popular referendum to be run concurrently with the next local government election that is scheduled for the July of 2018.

Significantly, talk about constitutional reform has been something of an evergreen in recent Korean politics. There was debate about reform under the last four presidencies, namely the ones led by the liberals Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) and the conservatives Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017). These debates focused on reforming the presidency in a way that would strengthen other political institutions, perhaps in exchange for removing the single-term limit on the presidency to make the system conform with the US example allowing for two consecutive four-year terms in office. In this context, the most commonly voiced reform scenarios concerned semi-presidentialism (dividing authority between domestic and foreign policy-making and handing the former to the prime minister), or strengthening of the role of the National Assembly vis-à-vis the president. However, these debates were somehow academic and/or journalistic in the sense that other countries and their systems were presented to a Korean audience that took note, but was still not strongly committed to any particular reform course. No action was taken.

However, the new President Moon is more strongly committed to constitutional reform in comparison to his predecessors, and his high popular approval rates backed up by a narrow majority of liberal forces in the National Assembly (his own party holds 121 out of 299 seats in parliament while another liberal parties hold 40 seats) makes for a more enabling reform environment. Yet the liberal camp is short of the required two-third majority in parliament that is necessary to pass a constitutional reform bill, which would in turn enable the president to submit such proposal to a popular referendum next year. In other words, President Moon needs cooperation from at least some conservatives to find enough votes in parliament to ensure passage [3]. If this is in fact possible is currently an entirely open question. After all, the normal behavioural pattern of liberals and conservatives in Korea has been all-out confrontation rather than cooperation.

Nevertheless, thirty years after the last constitutional reform that issued in democracy in 1987, another round of reform appears at least plausible. But what are we to expect? In terms of potential reform scenarios, the options include the already mentioned semi-presidentialism, although this idea has so far not triggered much support. Other conceivable changes would concern the relationship between the presidency and the ensemble of the other political institutions mentioned in the 1987 Constitution, making the former less ‘imperial’ and strengthening the latter. For example, the presidential office that is currently made up of presidential appointees and controls the other institutions could hand over some powers to other actors. Another option would be to make the political system less centralised, by expanding the decision-making power of local governments. One could also think of efforts to change the way the legislature is elected, by changing the voting system from the currently dominant plurality system to a system that expands proportional representation. Such change would have the potential to transform the party system and could perhaps overcome the current patterns of political behaviour that is mostly based on personal loyalties to individual leaders and regionalism rather than political programmes and ideology.

The Future of Korean Democracy

Any constitutional reform scenario ultimately poses hard questions about the actual state of the country’s democratic capabilities. While the current mainstream view is the optimistic assertion that the unseating of Park Geun-hye, due to the popular protests in 2016 and 2017 with millions of participants in peaceful street rallies, has proven the resilience of democratic values and popular engagement in Korea, this view has not been universally shared. One observer has suggested that Koreans in all socio-economic groups mostly prefer paternalistic leadership over liberal democracy. The author further holds that ‘socioeconomic modernization has failed to emancipate the people from illiberal norms’, arguing that the ‘internalization of norms promoting hierarchism, collectivism, conformism, and [cultural] monism in social life … [promote] affinity for paternalistic autocracy’. These assertions, based on data from the 2015 Asian Barometer Korean survey, point back to the problem of the relationship between Confucian values and pluralist democracy [4].

In a similar vein, the current writer has suggested that Korean democracy suffers from clashes between constitutional, Confucian and hyper-capitalistic norms and values. Such competition produces a permanent state of flux; each of the three normative orientations have moments of dominance. As a result, interpersonal trust is low, which facilitates a highly competitive individualism taking advantage of weak institutional checks and balances. Any reform path would require overcoming the ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in order to consolidate institutions of political participation based on deliberation and coalition-building [5].

The reality of Korean democracy is that there has been limited progress in terms of strengthening of formal institutions. Namely, the chaebols and their economic interests have always dominated the political agenda, while civil society actors have been weakly institutionalised and usually powerless. In turn, political parties also display little by way of an internal life beyond the leader-follower relationship. This spills over into the way the parties conduct parliamentary business. If institutions other than the presidency are expected to acquire a larger role in the future, their capabilities would have to be strengthened from the bottom up as much as from the top down.

Clearly, one of the paradoxes of President Moon’s plan of making the presidency surrender some of its power in favour of other institutions is that the current system would still demand him to assume leadership on devolving such power. This is necessary because the other potential actor of devolution, namely parliament, might be gridlocked if liberals and conservatives fail to agree on joined-up reform. In case of failure, President Moon could have a second shot at constitutional reform in 2020 when the next national parliamentary elections are due and the liberals could theoretically gain a two-thirds majority enabling them to act without the backing of conservatives. Yet such a surge in a president’s popularity at a later stage of his/her tenure has not happened so far in the post-1987 democratic system. Instead, presidents usually lose some of their previous support in parliament during later stages of their tenure, and their agenda-setting power is subsequently much diminished. Thus, whether the current round of constitutional reform debate is going to produce results is still an open question.

Notes

[1] Yong-duck Jung, The Korean State, Public Administration, and Development: Past, Present and Future Challenges, Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 2014, pp. 67-119.

[2] No stated author, ‘What Moon Jae-in pledged to do as president’, Korea Herald, 10 May 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170509000521.

[3] Hyo-jin Kim, ‘Constitutional talks may lose steam’, Korea Times, 16 October 2017, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/10/356_237679.html.

[4] Doh-chull Shin, ‘President Park Geun-hye and the Deconsolidation of Liberal Democracy in South Korea: Exploring its Cultural Roots’, Center for the Study of Democracy, UC Irvine, 14 July 2017, pp. 9, 13, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1t68c47v.

[5] Jörg Michael Dostal, ‘South Korean Presidential Politics Turns Liberal: Transformative Change or Business as Usual?’, The Political Quarterly, 88, 3, 2017: 480-491, http://gspa.snu.ac.kr/sites/gspa.snu.ac.kr/files/Dostal-2017-The_Political_Quarterly%2088%283%29.pdf.

About the author

Jörg Michael Dostal (jmdostal@snu.ac.kr) is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, Korea. He teaches comparative politics and has recently published on the politics of Germany, Switzerland, Syria and South Korea. His publications are available here: http://gspa.snu.ac.kr/node/76.

Presidential Profile – Park Geun-hye: The Imperial President?

On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court of Korea unanimously upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Park, the first female president elected in the country, has become the first president to be ousted out of office by impeachment since democratization in 1987. The former President is now a named suspect in a criminal investigation of bribery and abuse of power. The fall from grace for Park is particularly poignant: until the Choi scandal, Park seemed to buck the trend of failing performance approvals that had afflicted her predecessors. In particular, presidents in Korea since democratization have generally entered office with high approvals but would suffer low approvals by mid-term onwards, so that they are typically characterized as “limping” out of office by the end of their respective terms. In contrast, notwithstanding recurring influence-peddling scandals among her key aides and criticisms of her unconsultative style, until the general elections in April 2016, Park was consistently able to revive falling approvals to parlay support for her into election wins for her party. Consequently, more than other presidents since 1987, Park, as “Queen of Elections,” encapsulated the “imperial president” in South Korea, i.e., the executive who successfully overrides the checks and balances by the other branches of government.[i] How that imperialism worked in practice, particularly for a single, five-year term-limited executive office, makes for interesting study.

Early life in Politics

Most are aware that Park is the eldest daughter of former strongman president Park Chung-hee, whom many Koreans credit as instrumental for putting the Korean economy on the global map. The consecutive assassinations of both parents in the 1970s left Park and her siblings socially and politically isolated for almost two decades. That changed in 1998, when Park successfully contested a legislative by-election for the Daegu seat. In 2004, Park became chair of the Grand National Party (GNP, the forerunner of the current Liberty Korea Party and its predecessor, the Saenuri Party); in that role, she eked out a 121-seat win for the scandal-hit, publicly-assailed GNP. That success cemented Park’s position as a key player in the GNP; still, she would not win the party’s nomination until 2012. That year, running on a platform of economic democracy that also championed candidate-nomination reforms to combat political corruption and transparency for accountability, Park beat out the liberal Minjoo Party’s candidate, Moon Jae-in, for the presidential office.

Presidential Years

The imperial presidency was in evidence in Park’s first year in office: her government filed a motion to dissolve the minority party, the Unified Progressive Party, with the Constitutional Court (granted in 2014) for ties with North Korea. Meanwhile, the government resisted, and then reportedly pressured, independent investigators on the role of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in the 2012 elections. When the main opposition Minjoo Party’s boycott of parliamentary proceedings for 101 consecutive days over the NIS role led to a legislative impasse, the Park government moved to temper the National Assembly Advancement law that required a three-fifth majority to bring bills from standing committees to the plenary, and pressed ahead with senior official appointments over the objections of the opposition. On February 9, 2015, an appeals court convicted the former NIS chief for meddling in the 2012 elections

Park’s second year in office witnessed the Sewol tragedy that saw more than 300 dead or missing, mostly high school students on an organized trip to the resort island of Jeju. As President, Park’s failure to take responsibility and apologize for her government’s inadequate responses – she delivered the first official apology 13 days after the incident – was topped by her resistance to a full, independent investigation of the incident.[ii] The regular rallies and protests in Seoul and outside the Blue House over the Sewol disaster are the groundswell of the anti-Park rallies in 2016.

Park’s third and fourth years were marked by battles to shield her aides from the political fallout of the “door-knob” scandals over access to the president, and clashes within her party and with the opposition over candidate nominations and reform of that process. In these, Park wielded her presidential powers comfortably: she vetoed a parliamentary bill on the National Assembly Act that would allow legislators to demand changes to executive legislation in 2015, and contemplated another veto in 2016 to the revised Act that would allow parliamentary committees to call for public hearings on bills. Her government also pushed through with the state text-books policy, which many critics argued whitewashed pro-Japanese activities during the colonial era as well as the country’s experience with military dictatorship. And, her negotiated agreement with Japan over the comfort women issue drew ire for its lack of consultation and rash conclusion. Through these endeavours, Park consistently stared down efforts by the legislature or within her party to wrestle the agenda away from her office, threatening to leave the party when key party members, such as former party chair Kim Moo-sung or former floor leader Yoo Seung-min, sought to take the party in a different direction.[iii]

The Fall of the Imperial President

But Park overshot herself on the candidate nomination for the 2016 general elections: her resistance on open party primaries, and then subsequent interference in the nomination process, led to the lost of the party as majority in the legislature. The outcome is particularly damning because, at the beginning of 2016, the ruling party looked set to coast to a 180-seat majority win for the ruling party that would allow it to push its agenda and eliminate need for compromise. But, the open party bickering over candidate-nominations, with senior party members rebuffed in favour of pro-Park candidates, led several to leave the party and run as independents. In the April general elections, the ruling party managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: it not only lost its majority in the legislature but also became the second largest party, after the opposition Minjoo Party. The scope of the imperial president is probably most telling in the aftermath of the election drubbing: while Park pledged to “humbly accept” the people’s will, she rejected a coalition with other parties, or even a reshuffle of the government.

In the end, the imperial president was brought down by the consistent, weekly rallies that began in October 2016 and surged to a high of 2 million. These are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, this may well be the most newsworthy aspect of the imperial president.

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Notes

[i] Arthur Schlesinger, 1973. The Imperial President. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin

[ii] O. Fiona Yap. 2015. “South Korea in 2014: A Tragedy Reveals the Country’s Weaknesses.” Asian Survey

[iii] O. Fiona Yap. 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey

Thomas O’Brien – Presidentialism and Democratisation in South Africa and South Korea

This is a guest post by Thomas O’Brien, Lecturer in Political Science at the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the UK. It is a summary of an article that will appear in Government and Opposition

The regime changes in South Africa and South Korea provide interesting insights into the role of presidential leadership during democratisation. In both cases the incumbent leader was forced to choose to subject their position to a democratic vote, thereby facing the risk of defeat. Echoing the point made by Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015), the respective regime types made this option viable as there was a belief that victory was possible and the status quo was increasingly unsustainable. F.W. de Klerk in South Africa was head of the National Party and had some hope that he would be able to retain power through democratic means given the institutional base and resources of the party. Similarly, Roh Tae Woo’s military background provided an institutional base on which he could rely to ensure stability and call on for support, in spite of his move into a civilian role. The position of President and head of a formal institutional apparatus gave them authority and control, which facilitated a degree of confidence that they could make the transition to democratic leadership successfully. However, the decision to accept the need for reform was not driven by altruistic ideals. Opposition to the incumbent regime structures had been growing significantly by the time each leader came to power, limiting the space they had to operate. South Africa had seen sustained social protest against the apartheid policies and faced growing foreign pressure in the form of sanctions and boycotts. At the same time, de Klerk faced internal divisions as hardliners within the party sought to block reforms. Roh Tae Woo faced extensive social protests against continued authoritarian rule, having taken over from Chun Doo Hwan who had been forced to resign in the face of widespread and sustained social unrest.

The issue of continuity is particularly important in these two cases. Both de Klerk and Roh assumed the presidency following the inability of their predecessors to continue (due to ill health and loss of legitimacy) during periods of instability. Taking on the role at pivotal moments provided an opportunity to make a change that had not been possible for their predecessors due to their deeper association with the regime structures. While both leaders had held high-ranking posts, their profile had been less contentious enabling them to maintain control over the institutional structure as they introduced reforms (on the emergence of reforming leaders from within see O’Brien, 2007). Continuity in this sense enabled the emergent leaders to introduce what they perceived to be reforms necessary to ensure their continued control. In both cases the eventual loss of control did not disrupt the democratisation process, as the leaders had been able to initiate reform internally to safeguard against reversion to authoritarian practices and were willing to accept the outcome.

The relative success of democratisation in these two cases warrants continued consideration of the role of incumbent leaders in shaping trajectories around regime changes. Democratisation by its very nature is a period of uncertainty, as roles and institutions are contested and reconstituted. Events in the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions show that regime change does not necessarily lead automatically to consolidated democracy. External pressure plays a key role in creating the opportunity for democratisation or reform by introducing a degree of uncertainty, as more actors become involved and take a stake in the outcome. A leader committed to change may be able to draw on this pressure to exercise agency and challenge entrenched institutional practices and patterns. In such situations the actions of the incumbent leader are crucial in shaping the outcome, as it is ultimately the elites that determine how to manage the opportunities and threats that arise. Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán (2013) note that elite policy preferences (moderate or radical), normative preference for democracy or authoritarianism, and the regional political environment are key in determining whether a process of democratisation will be initiated.

In initiating reform the leader’s ability to manage the process and the likelihood of playing a role in the post-transitional context is arguably shaped by four structural factors: authority, institutions, opposition and continuity. Authority refers to the source of the leader’s power and in such regimes is generally derived from performance or personal charisma (Brooker, 2000). The robustness of the leader’s authority will determine their ability to maintain loyalty and exercise agency in shaping political developments.  While the reasons for the decision to relinquish power or at least allow reform of the system vary, legitimacy can be identified as an important factor. Where a regime loses support and legitimacy among the wider population it is possible to continue, but internal divisions may emerge as other actors perceive their own positions to be threatened. Institutional patterns play a key role in ‘structuring the nature of political competition’ (Elgie, 1995: 23), as they provide a base from which the leader can operate. If these have been neglected or degraded, they are less useful in times of crisis (see O’Brien, 2007 on Boris Yeltsin). As noted above, opposition is significant in pressing for reform, but the location (internal versus external) and strength of this opposition will determine the space the leader has to operate. The accretion of custom and practice over time ties actors into the system, thereby reducing the chances of defection from within, but potentially limiting the agency of the leader by encouraging pressure to maintain the status quo.

The institutional form of the regime plays an important role in the decision-making of incumbent leaders. Examining the ability of foreign pressure to force change in non-democratic regimes, Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015) find that personalist regimes are more resistant, as the stakes are higher for the leader without a formalised base. In military and party regimes the existence of a formal support base provides more opportunities in the event of systemic threats. Military leaders are able to return to barracks and exercise some degree of control over the democratising regime, through the threat of force. Party based regimes have less direct control, but possess the ability to participate (possibly under a new name) in the reconstituted system and return incumbent leaders to office. The corporate form of military and party regimes also enables the leader to rely on the hierarchy to ensure loyalty of followers and limit chances of defection, as failure would be costly for the whole of the collective. As noted, the institutional form played a role in both South Africa and South Korea, ensuring stability and a chance that the incumbent leaders may be able to secure a degree of influence over the regime trajectory.

Decisions of a leader are central in shaping the likelihood of a move towards democracy, but this does not guarantee that a fully realised democratic system will result, as structural constraints and internal opposition may stall or reverse progress made. Elite preferences determine what tools and direction the leader may choose (Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán, 2013), but these preferences exist within a social and institutional framework that enables or constrains their actions. F.W. de Klerk and Roh Tae Woo demonstrated through their actions a preference towards greater democracy, reinforced by social instability and external pressure, but it was their control of the institutions of government that enabled this preference to be acted on. The cases also reiterate the importance of the perceived likelihood of post-transition success, maintaining a degree of control over the process. As Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015) argue, in the absence of a post-transition future a turn to repression may be a more viable option. Preferences are not absolute, contextual factors and likely future outcomes condition the ability and willingness of leaders to act on their preferences.

References:

  • Paul Brooker (2000) Non-Democratic Regimes: Theory, Government and Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Robert Elgie (1995) Political Leadership in Liberal Democracies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Abel Escribà-Folch and Joseph Wright (2015) Foreign Pressure and the Politics of Autocratic Survival. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán (2013) Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival and Fall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Thomas O’Brien (2007) ‘The Role of the Transitional Leader: A Comparative Analysis of Adolfo Suárez and Boris Yeltsin’, Leadership, 3(4): 419-32.

Thomas O’Brien is a lecturer in the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. His research examines leadership, democratization, environmental politics, human security, protest and New Zealand. Previous work has appeared in the British Journal of Sociology, Conflict, Security and Development, Contemporary Politics, Democratization, and Political Studies. @TomOB_NZ

South Korea – The President, Opposition, and Political Trust

200 days following the Sewol ferry tragedy, the legislature finally formulated a bill for the investigation of the disaster to which the Sewol families have given their consent. The prolonged passage of the bill – due largely to the victim families’ resistance to previous iterations of the Sewol investigation bill – underlines political distrust of President Park and her Saenuri Party government as well as the opposition alliance, the New Political Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), to represent the interests of the Sewol victims’ families. This raises the questions: what is political trust? What are the effects of political distrust in an emergent democracy such as South Korea?

What is political trust? Political trust refers to public confidence in the facility and capacity of the political system to deliver regularly political goods that include contestable political succession, regularized competition, civil and political liberties, and freedom of association and expression.[1] Political trust, then, rests on the design and workings of the “institutions, structures and processes” to produce quality political goods “even if left untended,” based on principles of fairness and accountability. [2]

What are the effects of political distrust? Studies show that political trust – derived from institutional performance – underpins the distinction of political performance from government performance so that it buffers the political system from the pressures of immediate outputs. Conversely, political distrust means that the political system is under pressure to produce immediate outputs, while the concomitant lack of vested interests in the political system means that the public is more willing to engage in non-compliant behaviors, including civil disobedience and protests, to demand for these outputs.[3] Political distrust in an emergent democracy such as South Korea, then, potentially jeopardizes democracy in the country.

The regular rallies and protests in Seoul and outside the Blue House – including hunger strikers – demanding a full, independent investigation of the Sewol tragedy signal the political distrust with a political system that has given rise to regulatory lapses that endanger wellbeing.

Importantly, the political distrust extends to the opposition alliance: indeed, the opposition NPAD alliance’s effort to push through previous iterations of the Sewol bill faced bitter opposition from the Sewol victims’ families and felled the recently-elected NPAD floor leader, Park Young-sun. Clearly, the political distrust means that the opposition – like the government – is faced with pressures of immediate outputs and performance.

The road to build political trust is clear: focus on institution-building that delivers political goods rather than public or private goods such as economic performance. But there are clear trade-offs from such a focus: the political system may be buffered but the parties and the government remain vulnerable to voters’ expectations of performance and subsequent rejection for failing to deliver. The government and opposition may do well to note that, as they struggle with these trade-offs, the democratic health of the country remains at stake.

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[1] Mishler and Rose (2001) ; Yap (2013)

[2] Ruscio (1999:651-2); Grimes (2006); Shi (2001: 401). Shi, Tianjian (2001). “Cultural Values and Political Trust: A Comparison of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.” Comparative Politics vo 33 no 4: 401-19

[3] Lianjiang Li (2008) ; Marien and Hogen (2011)

South Korea – The President and Credible Apologies

A month ago, President Park and her ruling Saenuri Party appeared invulnerable: polls showed her approval ratings in the high 60-70% range. The opposition party alliance, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) – considered a potent threat when it first coalesced – failed to materialize as a peril to her government. Even the backtracking of her election-pledge to reform the party-nomination process did not dent the president’s popularity. Indeed, rather than pushed onto the defensive regarding the party-nomination reform, President Park’s resolve on maintaining some form of party-nomination forced the NPAD to abandon its campaign for reform and, instead, field party-nominated candidates for the local elections in June. President Park looked set to plough ahead through the rest of the year, with many anticipating a reinforced government-base from an unmatched, if not unprecedented, mid-term election success for a governing party in Korea.

Yet, the President’s fortunes have seen a dramatic reversal: following the ferry disaster on April 16, 2014, that saw more than 300 dead or missing, the President’s approval rating has fallen below 50 percent. Public anger at the government’s slow response and subsequent failure to save the victims – mostly high school students on an organized trip to the resort island of Jeju – has ignited protests, sit-ins, and rallies against the government. Further, it has unleased a storm of criticisms against the media for positive coverage of the incident, and a general backlash against the ruling Saenuri Party so that the previous solid electoral victories are now on the line for the June 4 local elections. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered his resignation to accept responsibility for the government’s poor performance, but that did not tamper public anger. Instead, social media and public forums remarked on the lack of an apology from the President. 13 days after the ferry sinking, President Park apologized to the families of the victims during a cabinet meeting. Yet, rather than provide comfort, the apology seemed to ignite more public displeasure with the government. President Park’s second apology only days later fueled further public disfavour. 34 days after the incident, the President apologized again in a televised address as her approval ratings tumble down into the low 40s. Clearly, the public is looking for a credible apology. What does a credible apology comprise?

Studies of credible apologies note that two processes are integral to apologies: (a) increase in monitoring of the government, i.e., review and assessment by committees comprising non-government citizens; and (b) government accountability and responsibility for the incidents.1

Increase in monitoring of the government – through review and assessment – makes clear that the President and her administration have a commitment towards transparency, accountability, and capacity-building. Further, the inclusion of non-government personnel in these committees is directly relevant to the government’s credibility: in particular, it provides integrity to the process and ensures that the government accountability in part (b) does not merely represent scapegoating or efforts to placate the disaffected.2 Government accountability and responsibility means that government officials and representatives are dismissed, replaced, or demoted, or government ministries and agencies are downsized or eliminated. This government accountability, then, acknowledges the impact and devastation on lives and livelihood and demonstrates a commitment to preventing similar devastation.

More than a month after the ferry disaster, the President is taking steps in the direction of credible apologies with the televised national address and the disbanding of the Coast Guard. Importantly, in this renewed effort to rehabilitate public trust, there must be diligence in including private sector in monitoring and reviewing changes so that integrity in the accountability process is ensured. Thus, for instance, it is one thing for the Prime Minister to take responsibility, but another for the resignation to resonate as credible accountability.

Too often, public confidence in the government is relegated as a natural offshoot of work to be accomplished or scuttled to the sidelines for a later date. Hopefully, it is clear that purposeful rebuilding of public confidence through credible apologies is key to short- and long-term stability and success.

[1] The concept of credible apologies draws in part on the strategy of “tit-for-tat with apologies.” See Randall Calvert, “Communications in Institutions: Efficiency in a Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma with Hidden Information,Yap (2005).

[2] See Yap (2003).