Egypt Best Case Scenario via Korea

By Young Back Choi and Chidem Kurdas

Compared to the turmoil in the Middle East, South Korea appears to be an oasis of calm. But as recently as 20 or so years ago you could  still smell tear gas on the streets of Seoul. Violent demonstrations shook the city for decades—-making it look like Cairo today.

Despite continuing tensions with North Korea, Seoul is now relatively peaceful and the economy is humming along. How did South Korea get out of the cycle of angry protests and government repression? 

Certainly part of the answer is prosperity. South Korean real gross domestic product grew at an average of 8% from the 1960s to 1990.  Per capita GDP is now close to the level of Japan’s (at purchasing power parity).   But the expansion of jobs and income was in part a result of government response to public fury.

One of us (Young Back) grew up in Seoul and as a young teenager joined protests that pitted the police against the protestors. He remembers the widespread anger about an undemocratic and repressive regime. Political rent extraction was rampant. Much American aid was channeled through a corrupt political network with little benefit to the economy at large. Even youngsters like him, mere children, believed justice was on the side of the opposition.  So he rushed to join the demonstrators.

South Korean democracy did not develop immediately in response to the public’s demands. The process was convoluted. Since the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948, there has been six distinct regimes, including the military regime of Park Chung-hee, who was in power for 18 years. In 1979, amid protests, Park was assassinated by the head of the Korean secret service.

Park and other Korean rulers saw economic growth as a way to gain acceptance and weaken the opposition—thus the protests encouraged pro-growth policies. But even as governments promoted investment and exports, there were huge roadblocks along the way.

When international credit dried up in the late 1970s, Korea could have gone bankrupt. Factories were still under construction, exports were small and foreign exchange earnings were insufficient to buy the equipment and materials needed to produce exportable goods. Loans from Japan eased that economic crisis.

One basic lesson is that political stability and economic success cut both ways. While greater affluence would calm Egyptian demonstrators, overcoming major economic barriers requires a government that is accepted by the population. This may or may not mean political liberalization. China shows that fast growth can happen under a repressive regime. But a chaotic environment is an impediment to growth, with the recent financial and economic disruption caused by political unrest in Egypt a vivid example.

As we know all too well from the history of the developing world, it’s easy for societies to get trapped in a vicious cycle. Exploitative government causes political unrest and economic stagnation, which in turn leads to further repression, unrest and economic stagnation.

The interaction of a responsive political system and income growth creates a virtuous cycle.  In South Korea, this took several decades. Over time the government became more representative.  The sixth Republic – currently in place – started in 1987, when demands for reform led to direct presidential elections and the restoration of civil rights.

Challenges remain, of course. South Korea is heavily unionized and higher wages have made exports less competitive. Faced with aggressive union demands at home, Korean companies often invest abroad—like the Hyundai Motor plant built in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2004 or a plan by Posco to build a $12 billion steel factory in India.  But these are the issues of a modern economy.

Let us hope that when they reach middle age, the young protestors of Egypt and Tunisia will look back to today as a crossroads that led to better lives, in the sense of both greater liberty and material wellbeing.

7 thoughts on “Egypt Best Case Scenario via Korea

  1. It would be a primer for an Arab country if things went good for liberty or even only for democracy.

    Were there in Korea any organized opposition parties which defended liberty, or democracy, with some convinction in the late ’70s?

    Up to now, the only organized opposition in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, which appears to be a multifaceted movement which varies from fanatic islamism to moderate Wille zur Macht. I feel there is little to hope from them, but miracles sometimes occur.

    The last news are that the Army has stepped in, which is surely better than a fanatic Islamist regime, but has probably nothing to do with liberty and democracy. It can be hoped, maybe, that the new regime, however, will be less corrupt because it will better trade-off private cleptocracy with public wealth, but it’s too early to say much.

    It’s the lack of an organized reliably liberal-democratic opposition which poses most reasons to be worried. Too many people are talking about liberty only because a dictator has gone: also Batista and Palhavi did go, but to no avail for their countries.

    Besides, polls appear to show a widespread consent for extremist positions among the populace, and the liberty of killing apostates doesn’t look a great freedom.

    People, said Hoffer, feel free when they run, even when they run from the fire to the frying pan.

    So, the question was: how was the organized opposition in Korea in the ’70s? More like Solidarnosc or more like Al Qaeda?

  2. This is from Young Back Choi, in reply to Pietro M.:

    Korean protesters in the 1970s were neither like Polish Solidarity Movement, nor is it like the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time most protests were done by college students. (Why do you even mention Al Qaeda? Do they wage public demonstrations? I thought they just go around making political demands and then terrorize the population by force as a way of getting what they want.)

    The situation in Egypt seems to resemble the situation of Korea in 1960 when a series of student uprising toppled the First Republic—found after the liberation from 36 years of the brutal Japanese colonial rule and 3 years of American military rule and having endured the Korean War (1950-1953) in which over 2 million civilians died. But when it was discovered that the ruling party stole the election, students all over the country rose in protest. (I suppose the ground for protest was that the citizens’ constitutional rights had been violated.) When the police was not able to control the situation, the army was called in but the army refused to use force on students. I would say the student rising was more or less spontaneous and unorganized.

    Your quotation of Hoffer is an apt description of Korean student protests of 1960. Perhaps, because the protest was unorganized, or the opposition was not the main orchestrator of the toppling of the regime, the second Republic formed in the aftermath resulted in total chaos—all sorts of interest groups waging daily protests for all sorts of reasons– and paralysis.
    In less than a year the second Republic was overthrown in a military coup, led by General Park, who ultimately found the Third Republic. Student protests continued through his rule, as he tried to normalize the relationship with Japan, tried to rewrite the constitution to run for another term, subsequently suspended his own constitution to give himself lifetime tenure, and as various industrial projects in which he staked all turned sour and a severe recession followed. During President Park’s rule, most street demonstrations were done by college students. (When I attended the college in Korea, colleges were often ordered to close for up to half a semester at a time.) Opposition leaders were often jailed or co-opted; labor unions had been brutally suppressed. After the assassination of President Park in 1979, political turmoil ensued, leading to another military coup d’état, lead by General Chun in the same year. Chun did not hesitate to use military force to brutally suppress popular uprisings. His Fourth Republic lasted until 1987. By this time, the political opposition was better organized, after over two decades of trials.

    That Korea by this time had a significantly larger middle class than in the 1960s or 1970s helped. Since 1988 Korea has had a democratically elected government, and along have come many ills of democracy, including rapid expansion of the welfare state. Moreover, despite democratization, Korean political system has an imperial presidency, a source of unending corruption.

    You say you hope for less corruption when government changes in Egypt. Ultimately, corruption comes from two sources—culture of rule of law (lack thereof) and the concentration of power. Is there any reason for less corruption in Egypt soon?

  3. Thanks for the answer. Given your (Young’s) conclusions I see little hope for Egypt, at least in the short run.

    PS I cited “Solidarnosc” and “Al Qaeda” as a rhetorical device to describe two diametrically opposite ways to oppose the establishment.

  4. Did Korea have any of the type of religious “baggage” that accompanies the situation in Egypt and the Middle East, in general?

    Was there a large faction in Korean society that wished to imposed a rather severe theological set of rules and prohibitions on all members of that society?

    Were there Korean fanatics willing to kill themselves in crowds of innocent civilians for their cause — and looking forward to various “benefits” as a result in the “next life”?

    I don’t mean to seem as cynical as I think my comments are probably sounding, but . . .

    There is the uncertainty of what the military authorities will do, given their seemingly wide privileges and monopoly interests in various parts of the Egyptian economy.

    And what will be the influence of the more extreme Islamic advocates who would like to see an orthodox religious regime in Egypt.

    This has dampened my “excitement” about the events that have filled our television screens over the last couple of weeks.

    I wish the Egyptian people well, but there are few precedents upon which to have much optimism. I hope I am wrong.

    Richard Ebeling

  5. Pre-modern Korea was often called the Hermit Kingdom and, of course, North Korea still is, complete with a political theology & dynasty. By contrast, South Korea has changed dramatically–despite repressive regimes and a military regime that went on 18 years. This example suggests that profound change is possible over a period of several decades. Of course there is no way to know whether a given country will go through a similar transformation.

  6. Richard

    The situation in Egypt differs from that of South Korea in 1960 in that there was no group that wanted to establish theocracy in Korea.

    Korea probably is one of the most religious countries in the world in the sense that over 80% of the population actively practices religion. The religious are divided into evenly three parts—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity (of which 90% are Protestants). Buddhism and Confucianism had been the state religion in the past. Both showed the tendency for monopolistic abuse of power, but neither of them is monotheistic and doctrinal purity was not overly emphasized. Christianity is monotheistic (and Europeans had long history of religious persecutions and holy wars), but the circumstance in which they were introduced to Korea (late 19th C) rendered it fully compatible with the separation of church and state. So while many people who participated in protests against dictatorship and corruption in Korea in 1960 and subsequently were often religious, hardly anyone thought of imposing his or her religion on other people.

    My understanding of Islam is limited. But it seems the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism (which is for theocracy) in recent decades surely forces people who come to contact with it to reckon with it. Either you are for it or against–Koran or sword. Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamic fundamentalist movement, with varying degree of emphasis on the use of force. Will Egypt have a constitution protecting individual rights? Would it agree to live by constitutional rights of all citizens—including Coptic and other “infidels”? Would mullahs, sheikhs and imams refrain from issuing fatwa’s to hunt down infidels? We see what has happened in Iran (which is a theocracy de jure) and Pakistan (a theocracy de facto).


    People don’t change in many ways, but they also change in surprising ways. In the 1950s and 1960s, Koreans used laugh at themselves for being lazy, unpunctual, and unreliable. But something happened in the 1970s and 1980s, in the process of economic development. Many people found that hard work paid and soon they began to behave differently. Now hardly anyone use the epithets on Koreans anymore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s