This paper will begin with a brief overview of the breakup of Korea and the ensuing war before explaining the two different political systems that emerged in each state. The paper will then undertake a comparative discussion of the different regime types in North and South Korea since 1953 to provide some context to the political developments that have occurred in each state since then. Following on from this the paper will assess the literature on each state before going on to apply different regime typology theory to both cases to assess what Korean style dictatorship and democracy have meant for the citizens of North and South Korea respectively. Finally the paper will conclude with a summary of its findings and some recommendations for future policy.
North Korea is increasingly portrayed as a pariah on the world stage, with each news report on the Asian state rushing to caricature the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a state that has a bizarre leadership and an oppressed citizenry. However, a major problem with reporting on North Korea is a lack of information as well as a lack of credibility to much of the information that is forthcoming (Smith 1996, p.xiii). It is the hypothesis of this research that after the division of Korea after World-War-Two by imperialist powers, the different political and economic paths that North and South Korea have taken has produced a situation the economic development of the capitalist South had led to democratisation whilst economic stagnation in and Western policies against the communist North has perpetuated dictatorial rule. This paper will assess what the break-up of Korea and the different political paths the two Korea’s have taken meant for each state.
Korea is one of the oldest nations in existence. It has a rich culture and strong national identity and had more than a millennium of unity before its colonisation by imperialist Japan in 1910 (Halliday and Cumings 1988, p.10). After nearly four decades of rule by Japan, after World-War-Two it was divided along the thirty-eight parallel by American colonels. This division left the capital, Seoul in the south ruled by US forces, whilst the north was ruled over by Soviet forces with a three year occupation in each territory (Ibid, p.16). Although a Korean government of ‘people’s committees’ had taken over the running of the state upon the demise of Japan, the US shunned this idea as a too communistic and set about constructing a government apparatus that was more favourable to its ideals, and supported the conservative Korean Democratic Party (KDP) as its government in the South (Ibid, pp.15-16). With UN support in 1948, elections were held in to elect a national government but the north refused to participate. The vote elected Syngman Rhee as leader and the UN ratified the election as the will of two-thirds of the Korean people (Bluth 2008, p.13). Soon after, the north proclaimed the DPRK and Kim Il Sung became its leader.
With soviet forces leaving the north in 1948 and US forces leaving the south in 1949, a tit for tat guerrilla war ensued. In 1950, North Korean armed forces with the support of Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the South (Ibid, p.1). Truman in the US saw this as an act of communist aggression and committed US forces with the support of the UN (Ibid, p.2). The war lasted three years. On July 27th 1953, an armistice agreement was signed by the North and the UN, although the South did not sign as it wanted the war to continue and Korea to be liberated. The human cost of the war was huge with an estimated 2,000,000 Koreans dying, as well as 900,000 Chinese and 54,246 US troops (Ibid, p.20). A demilitarised zone was imposed along the border which deterred another full-scale war, and the division of Korea has existed since then.
The regime that emerged in North Korea has been described and characterises itself as communist, however the state is best characterised as a hybrid dictatorship and a Stalinist, personalistic, totalitarian regime. After the end of the war, Kim Il Sung carefully orchestrated a cult of personality based upon himself and became known as the ‘Great Leader’ (Fredriksen 2001, p.277). His indigenous nationalistic version of socialism was called juche, or “self-reliance,” which required sacrifices for the state. The political institutions of the DPRK were modelled on the Stalinist system of the Soviet Union, however the structure of the political institutions was irrelevant because during the 1960s, Kim consolidated his power to the extent that he could no longer be challenged (Bluth 2008, p.25-26). In the early 1970s Kim Il Sung chose his son Kim Jung il as his successor and began to place him at the centre of power in the DPRK. Research has suggested that Kim Jung il was largely running the government by the 1980s as his father slipped into semi-retirement (Ibid, p.27-28). Although totally going against their proclaimed Marxist/Leninist ideological position, upon Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il took over the mantle of running the state until his own death, and the succession of his son Kim Jong-un in 2012.
Between 1953 and the 1970s, with a Stalinist command economic model, industrial production as well as collectivised farms dominated the North Korean economy and remarkable economic gains were made which eclipsed capitalist South Korea (Fredriksen 2001, P.277). However, between 1970 and 1990 the DPRK economy had been in slow decline with mounting external debt, overspending on military and a series of mismanaged seven-year plans not achieving the desired results (Bluth 2008, p.37-39). By the mid-1990s, various factors combined to produce an agricultural famine with an estimated 3.5% of the population dying (Nolan, 2003 cited in Bluth 2008, p.40). Although some economic reforms have been instigated since then, the economic situation in the DPRK remains dire.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of North Korea’s policies has been its nuclear programme. This, the North Koreans argue is to protect itself from outside aggressors such as the United States. The West in contrast sees its nucleariseation as an aggressive act. Two periods of crises illustrate this. The first in 1993 saw North Korea withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). After over a year and a half of military and diplomatic manoeuvres, North Korea succeeded in getting the United States to sign an agreement which gave economic concessions to the North and normalised relations between the two states (Michishita 2009, p.93) and (Niksch 2005, p.4). In December 2002, North Korea stated that it was to resume the operation and construction of nuclear facilities. After economic sanctions from the US, the North launched ballistic missile nuclear tests in 2006. The strategy succeeded in getting some US sanctions dropped and also its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism rescinded (Ibid, p.163), but that is as far as it went and the situation remains tentative.
The political system that emerged in South Korea was markedly different to that in the North. Although nominally a capitalist democracy, the South has had a difficult path in consolidating that democracy, and had to endure decades of military and authoritarian rule. After the Korean War, the South evolved into a bureaucratic entity and owing to its continuing confrontation with its sister state, required a strong military presence. This situation led to a lack of focus on other institutions and allowed the military to assume a direct political role (Cotton 1989, p.248). South Korean politics during Syngman Rhee's regime (1948-60) centred on his struggle to remain in power with the use of fraudulent tactics. After popular dissatisfaction and a student rebellion, Rhee resigned in 1960 (Savada and Shaw 1997). Whilst Rhee had controlled the military by manipulating the generals, his successor Chang could not. Under the command of Major General Park Chung Hee, the army carried out a coup d'état on May 16, 1961 leading to eighteen years of direct military junta rule (Ibid).
As dissatisfaction with the eighteen-year rule of Park Chung Hee grew in 1979, so did the opposition with mass labour unrest and protest. Fearing a revolution because of Park’s hard line against the dissent, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) assonated Park (Shorrock 1986, p.1199). As popular demands for democracy grew, another military coup led by Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan took power again. He was later ‘elected’ president by the National Conference for Unification and set out a bold plan to create a new society. He removed old politicians from the scene and only those certified as "clean" could participate in politics (Savada and Shaw 1997). He appointed a new constitutional assembly which prepared a new constitution which restricted presidential terms to seven years as well as introducing new labour laws which banned workers unions and labour federations. New press laws also put the media under strict control (Shorrock 1986, p.1205).
Chun’s rule was championed by new US president Ronald Reagan whose anti-communist and neo-liberal economic agenda was shared with Chun. Although impressive economic growth was achieved after 1983, by 1987 Chun’s reneging on his promise of a democratic transition led to widespread protest and this ultimately led to his stepping down, with his successor Roo Tae Woo announcing an eight-point democratisation programme which capitulated to the opposition’s democratic demands (Lie 2000, pp.150-152), and paving the way for democratic consolidation ever since.
During the latter part of the military dictatorship and the early years of democratic consolidation, economic development in South Korea was hugely impressive in contrast to its sister state. In effect, one of the world's poorest countries developed into an industrialized member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) within three decades. Growth of GNP per capita rose from $87 in 1962 to $8483 in 1994. As well as this, exports grew from $40 million in 1953 to $96 billion in 1994 (Kim, 1997a, pp.1-2, cited in Hassink 1999, p.128). So, it could be argued that economic growth in some ways spurred democratic demands. Democratic consolidation in turn led to massive economic growth with South Korea becoming one of Asia’s ‘Tiger’ economies.
While there were some similarities between the two states’ leadership since the breakup, there are also some important typological differences. Both Korean regimes, up until 1987 in the case of the South, have had dictatorial regimes. However, there were important differences between these forms of dictatorships that go beyond the economic mode of production that they adopted. To understand what is meant by dictatorship, a definition is useful. For this purpose Przeworski et al.’s explanation that “democracies are those in which those who govern are selected through contested elections. Dictatorships are not democracies” is best (Przeworski, et al. 2000). North Korea is best described as a hybrid dictatorship combining personalist and single-party rule in a totalitarian fashion (Ezrow and Frantz 2011, p.22). In contrast to this, the regime in South Korea between 1961 and 1987 could be best described as a military dictatorship with authoritarian rule (Ibid, p.20).
Single party dictatorships are those in which power is concentrated in the hands of one single party and the leader of the regime is typically the head of that party. Within such a system the ruling party controls the institutions of the state and directs the majority of the political arena including media, local government and civil society (Ibid, p.192). Party officials are typically the masters of policy, and rule is imposed through decrees, mandates or legislation that is uncontested. Within the category of single party dictatorships, different typologies exist including weak and strong systems, hegemonic systems and ideological one party states which in particular are characterised by one party holding power and a reliance on official state ideology (Ibid, pp.193-195). These types of regimes are remarkably robust because they can both suppress and co-opt political opposition (Ibid, p.197).
Personalist dictatorships share some similarities but also important differences. These are regimes where a single individual controls politics without any checks and balances on their power. The leader dominates the military as well as all of the state apparatus, and the ruling party if there is one is used as a tool of the leader to carry out their goals (Ezrow and Frantz 2011, p.215). It is quite common that such dictators are current or were once members of the military, although once in power the military becomes subservient to them (Ibid p.216). Regularly personalist dictators have a close personal clique, in many cases close family who help to rule. Although they are generally durable regimes, their structure often make it problematic for them to survive beyond their reign (Ibid, p.220). They use a number of methods to retain their power including repression, select patronage networks, building cults of personality and using divide and conquer tactics (Ibid, pp.221-224). With this form of dictatorship, intra-regime succession infrequently occurs, although when it does it is normal to a son or male relative (Ibid, p.232). In many cases, a hybrid between the one party and the personalist dictatorships occurs. This can be applied to the case of North Korea.
Military dictatorships are regimes in which control over policy and the security forces rests in the hands of the military. Typically in this form of dictatorship, the leader is a current or former military officer. At times, a group of officers or a ‘junta’ hold the power and govern in a cohesive, disciplined manner with efficient lines of communication (Ezrow and Frantz 2011, p.167). In general, policy is implemented by the military which preserves most of government institutions. Typologies of military dictatorship are varied and include different structural forms such as direct rule. They also include moderator, guardian and ruler types, and professional and praetorian dictatorships (Ibid, pp.168-170). Although many military dictatorships can rule with an iron fist, “many scholars have highlighted the internal fragility of military dictatorships, and among dictatorships military regimes are the most short lived” (Ibid, p.171). The reasons for this include the preferences of military elites for the military over political office, the destabilising effect of factionalism, a commitment to temporary rule and also sensitivity to pressures for democratisation (Ibid, 171-174). This type of dictatorship was evident in South Korea for many years.
The different types of political systems that were adopted in North and South Korea after its divide have produced many different results for the citizens of each state. In North Korea, the hybrid personalist and one-party dictatorship with Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong il and his grandson Kim Jong-un has proved very durable, with each of their successions running smoothly and their leadership going unchallenged. In contrast to this, South Korea has flirted with democracy, dictatorship and military junta before eventually consolidating democratic reforms from the late 1980s until now. In North Korea, although initial impressive economic growth showed positive signs for its citizens, subsequent policies have seen an increasing isolation of the state on the world stage because of its nuclear programme, and increasing impoverishment for its citizens due to many different factors. In contrast to this, since democratic consolidation in the South, they have gone on to best one of the world’s best performing economies. The following discussion will assess why the different paths have been taken, what has led to the durability of a dictatorship in one state and democratic reforms in another and why the South has successfully developed economically at a better rate than the North.
In looking to the case of North Korea first, the path towards a personalist one party dictatorship was sown into the fabric of North Korean society for the early days of Kim Il Sung’s leadership. Undoubtedly, the war played a huge role in directing public and military support behind Kim, but other factors have played a role in solidifying the regime. Perhaps most important in this regard has been the cult of personality. As in many personalist dictatorships, Kim Il Sung built up a system with himself as the centrepiece of each and every policy reform. He and his kin have cast themselves as almost divine, and the ‘natural’ leaders of the state. The official state ideology of juche has been used to indoctrinate the population towards a singular goal. This has led to a consolidation of power which in many ways seems unbreakable. This has been achieved by methods such as repression through the ultimate control of the military and the building of select patronage networks like in other personalist dictatorships. It has produced a remarkable situation where two intra-family successions have occurred, an irregular feat in most cases. But other factors have contributed to the North Korean dictatorship’s survival.
Like many other dictatorships, the leadership of North Korea have always maintained a strong anti-imperialist stance. Since the state’s inception it has been the focus of the anti-communist West, and in particular the United States. This it can be argued has produced a situation whereby North Korea’s leadership have capitalised on Western negativity towards communism and portrayed itself as constantly under threat from capitalist powers. This has allowed the solidification of the state ideology, and an acceptance of strong leadership and heavy military spending to protect the state from outside aggressors. In addition to this, sanctions that have been imposed by the Western powers because of North Korea’s nuclear programme have in many ways stifled the prospects for development in the North, and have produced a situation whereby far from reducing internal support for the regime, they have contributed to its survival. The hybrid nature of North Korea’s regime has allowed it to use both personalistic and one party strategy to maintain its grip on power.
In contrast to the North, South Korea has taken the path to democracy and away from dictatorial rule. Its initial period of rule following the division of Korea under the stewardship of Syngman Rhee could be best characterised as a period of authoritarian rule. Rhee spent much of his time in power trying to grab more power and supressing popular dissent and calls for democratisation. Park Chung Hee’s coup and subsequent military dictatorship saw some form of stability in-so-far as it lasted eighteen years. During this period, although elections were held, many opposition politicians were barred from politics and votes were rigged to ensure a majority for the ruling party (Cotton 1989, p.250). Park’s government also manipulated media and used government resources to purchase votes, and to impede funding of opposition parties (Ibid). Essentially, Park’s repression of opposition increased calls for democratisation and this ultimately led to his downfall and assassination as a revolution was feared by elites.
Although calls for democracy intensified, another military dictatorship in the form of Chun Doo Hwan ensued and used many similar tactics of survival to those that had gone before. Despite promises of democratic reform, Chun arrested thousands of political dissidents and sent them to ‘purification camps run by the military. As well as this, hundreds of labour leaders were fired from their jobs and hundreds of critical journalists were expelled from working (Shorrock 1986, p.1204). However it was not repression of the opposition that ultimately led to the failure of Chun’s regime, but the success in promoting economic growth during his era and during the previous military regime. As has been noted (Moffett 2013) and (Lipset 1994) and (Pei 1994), as a non-democratic state experiences economic growth, it is more likely to experience calls for democratisation. This provides a convincing explanation as to why South Korea moved away from dictatorial rule towards democracy and its sister state still lives under its own dictatorship. As a state develops economically its middle class grows, and this in turn increases education and calls for democratic institutions. While other factors certainly play a part in maintaining dictatorial rule in the North, it is un-doubtable that economic progress and growth in the south contributed to its move to and consolidation of democracy.
The division of Korea into two different states was the result of a post-World War II imperialist power grab. As is the case with many places that were carved up after the World War, the nation of Korea has suffered decades of turmoil since and will no doubt experience more until it achieves some form of re-unification in the future. The different political paths that each of the two ‘Koreas’ have taken have produced varied results for their citizens. North Korea remains a personalistic one party dictatorship that suffers poverty and isolation for the rest of the world. After impressive economic growth up until 1970, the Stalinist model of a centralised command economy, fettered by bureaucratic mismanagement destroyed the North Korean economy and it has not recovered since. The dictatorship of Kim Il Sung and his offspring have consolidated power in the reclusive state and have achieved this primarily through repression, cult status and the strict adherence to the official state ideology of juche. The maintenance of a siege mentality has also helped to embolden the leadership as the true and divine rulers of Korea.
In contrast to this, South Korea has also experienced periods of authoritarian and military dictatorial rule. After showing initial signs of democratisation, the state was plunged into decades of military rule. Similar repressive tactics to those in the North were used to supress dissent and political opposition. However one offshoot of this repression was the purges of labour leaders. This allowed a situation where workers’ rights and conditions were decimated, and it provided a fertile investment opportunity for wealthy capitalists. This situation under military rule provided strong economic growth. Paradoxically for the military rulers, this also produced a situation where a growing educated and middle class population demanded democratic rights. After years of opposition to military dictatorial rule, in 1987 democracy was achieved and has been consolidated since then. Economic growth promoting democracy best explains why South Korea moved away from dictatorship. However, the lack of democratic reforms in North Korea cannot solely be blamed on a lack of prosperity or growth. The particular characteristics of the dynasty style leadership, amongst other factors in the North, best describes the maintenance of the dictatorship there. With this in mind, future policy from Western powers towards dictatorships may be best served by promoting economic growth in those states, as this may be a factor in promoting the path to democracy.
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