[Letters] Korean lessons for EgyptThe recent ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo has been written off as response to a particularly Arab kind of repression. It’s been suggested that Arab citizens have reached the end of some imagined comfort with authoritarianism and that recent protests will ripple around the region.
People living under repressive regimes all over the world may find inspiration in the protestors who occupied Tahrir Square. And as Egyptians look to their country’s new, more open future, they would benefit from considering other transitions to democracy from dictatorship. The leaders of South Korea’s major political parties all issued polite statements of congratulation to Egypt’s victorious protest movement. A spokesperson for the opposition Liberty Forward Party said that Mubarak’s forced resignation should be a good example to North Korea. Her and other commentators were less eager to mention the short distance South Korea sits from its own undemocratic past.
South Korea is a popular model for developing countries looking to build a successful market economy and functioning democracy, but as Egypt seeks a model to replace Hosni Mubarak’s regime, it may look to South Korea for a lesson in what not to do. In 1980, South Korea experienced a similar escape from dictatorship, only to lapse back into authoritarianism for several more years.
South Koreans didn’t need to protest to oust their dictator; General-turned-President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in 1979, leaving a power vacuum and a perceived opportunity for change to a more inclusive system. The loss of the long-time leader gave citizens the courage to demand democracy. Many young Koreans had never seen a transfer of power in their country’s politics.
After Park’s death, the government was then controlled for six months by Choe Kyu-ha, a prime minister with little political skill to promote stability. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan claimed that only the strong hand of the military could maintain prosperity. He crushed dissent, scaring the citizenry into compliance and passivity.
South Korea’s decisive democratic moment didn’t come until 1987 when the death of student leader Park Jeong-chul galvanized the opposition against Chun’s regime. The impending 1988 Seoul Olympics and attendant eye of the Western world, foreign investors not least of all, forced the regime to accept its expiration.
Egypt’s movement lacks a clearly identifiable leadership whereas there were two charismatic leaders in South Korea at the time: Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both of whom went on to rule as democratically elected presidents.
South Korea is today wealthy and a working democracy, but recent years have seen some kind of a turn to the authoritarian tactics of the past. Even decades after the beginning of the transition, South Korean civil society has not reached the end of its battle.
The Egyptian military is now telling protesters in Tahrir Square to go home. But there is no official timetable for the hand-over of power to a civilian government. The army has yet to lift the permanent state of emergency or release political prisoners, two of the movement’s central demands.
Mubarak is gone and his disposal was an important victory, but the infrastructure of power he left behind remains the same. More fundamental changes must take place before Egyptians’ victory is complete. As such, protestors must not relent. But the courageous people of Egypt must not lose sight of their goal of real democracy, lest their freedom be delayed years more, as it was in South Korea.
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Steven Borowiec, a freelance journalist based in Seoul