[Viewpoint] Remembering the bad old days

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[Viewpoint] Remembering the bad old days

Despite May’s bright sunlight, my heart feels heavy when I think back 49 years. On May 16, 1961, the military intervened in politics to correct a democratic administration’s incompetence. That began the 17-year dictatorship of Park Chung Hee under the banner of economic development.

That era saw an end to widespread financial hardship and hunger, and the foundation of economic power was built. Chun Doo Hwan took over after Park’s assassination, and the economy continued to grow despite the May 18, 1980, upheaval and Chun’s strong military oppression. It would be seven years before the June democratization movement brought the nation to democracy.

Our complex history of dictatorship and democracy is reflected in modern attitudes toward the political system. While many people today have a strong desire for democracy, others are also nostalgic for dictatorship. According to my study, after democratization, eight or nine out of 10 people thought democracy was better than dictatorship. That number slowly decreased. Currently, seven out of 10 Koreans are in favor of democracy.

The World Values Survey supports my point. From the mid-1990s to early 2000, less than 30 percent of Koreans thought that it was good to have a national leader who does not care about the National Assembly and elections. In the surveys conducted in 2005 and this year, that figure increased by about 20 percent. And in public evaluations of Korea’s presidents, Park almost always ranked first, mostly thanks to his economic achievements.

Many Koreans see material stability as a high priority. Since democratization, presidents have increasingly faced hardships in pushing for a unilateral national policy, and the National Assembly has been more noted for its political fights rather than for its efforts to better people’s livelihoods.

As a result, some people began to wonder if democracy would be enough to feed them. As the procedures of representative politics were ignored from time to time, nostalgia for developmental dictatorship - a factor in our economic growth - grew stronger.

Is a dictator really likelier than a democratic leader to improve the public standard of living?

Some people argue that a dictator is relatively free from the demands of interest groups, so he or she can attract savings and investments with future-oriented views, and effectively develop an economy. Park showed such leadership, and his economic officials also demonstrated their capabilities. Yet in many other countries, dictators have privatized national wealth, allowing monopolies and cozy relations between politicians and companies while the people went hungry.

Korea’s economy grew despite the presence of corruption and undesirable ties between politicians and businesses. In addition to Park’s strong leadership, we must not forget the sacrifices and contributions made by female factory workers, industrial laborers and workers on the frontline of exports.

Most nations ruled by dictators have an extremely low gross national income per capita. Singapore and some oil-producing countries are perhaps the only exceptions. In contrast, the citizens of the most developed democratic nations enjoy high incomes. The welfare programs of the average democratic nation, including health and medical benefits, are much better than those of a dictatorship.

In a dictatorship, political communications are blocked, discussions about socially contentious issues are impossible, and leaders are not held accountable. A dictatorship, therefore, never attends to the people’s livelihoods. The famine in North Korea is caused by the nature of its regime.

The quality of life in a democracy is also undeniably superior to that in a dictatorship. Despite Singapore’s remarkable achievement in becoming an economic hub of Southeast Asian without natural resources, it is difficult for that country to develop a culture in which individuals can express their creativity freely.

In the past, extreme examples of oppression existed in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and such practices continue under the current dictatorship in North Korea, military dictatorships in Central and South America and the religious dictatorships in the Middle East. Even though South Korea didn’t suffer those restrictions, it experienced political control of private life, media censorship, intelligence authorities’ surveillance and infringement of human rights during the Park regime and the following military dictatorship.

Because of the coercive nature of the dictatorship, the public temporarily submitted, but resistance such as the May 18 movement erupted at an enormous social cost. Regional and ideological conflicts were also caused by dictatorships and they became a perennial problem of the country.

Nostalgia must not blind us to a realistic view of the past. We must not return to the era of developmental dictatorship. It’s time for us to contemplate how to realize an effective, democratic political leadership.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Chan-wook
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