Where South Korea succeeded and Thailand failed on the road to economic prosperity and democratization

On March 10, 2017, Park Geun-Hye, South Korea’s embattled president, was sentenced to a 24-year jail sentence under allegations of bribery and abuse of power. While much of the media focussed on the sheer amount of undue political power held by Park’s close friend, Choi Soon-Sil, this fixation came at the cost of an opportunity to show the South Korean democratic system at its best. Lost amidst the sordid details of the scandal was the historic nature of the impeachment proceedings and what they showed South Korean politics to be capable of. 

Initiated a mere two months after news of the scandal first broke, the impeachment process was (relatively) short, decisive, and most importantly, upheld in a unanimous ruling by the Constitutional Court, an institution widely trusted by the South Korean public. On the ground, the scandal was punctuated with a steady stream of street protests, both pro and anti-Park, the vast majority of which were peaceful; a day of violence after the ruling during which three protestors died was seen as an unfortunate anomaly rather than an inevitability.

In many ways then, the developments responsible for Park’s timely removal from power held elements that currently seem unimaginable for Thailand to emulate.

In stark contrast to South Korea, public distrust of the Thai traditional media establishment, which has long faced dilemmas on self-censorship, has never been more vocal. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court has failed to convince many of their legitimacy, fuelled by Future Forward’s dissolution earlier this year. The reputation of other judicial bodies, most notably the criminal justice system, lies in tatters in the aftermath of the “Boss” Yoovidhya case, shamefully painting a picture of the complicit relationship between business elites and the law in comparison to South Korea’s ability to bring family-owned conglomerates (Chaebols) to trial. But perhaps most relevantly, the act of political protest in South Korea brings little expectation of significant violence, whereas fears that the anti-government demonstrations in Thailand would end in bloodshed are widespread. 

These differences make Thailand and Korea seem a world apart, yet it was not too long ago that the two countries experienced similar political and economic developments that made them virtually interchangeable at a brief glance. So where did Thailand go so wrong? Or more importantly, what did South Korea get right?

South Korea’s rise into the world’s 12th largest economy with a functioning democratic system is all the more impressive given its postwar ordeal. In perhaps one of the most ill-timed predictions of the decade, an academic once wrote in an overview of Korea’s economy in 1944 that rapid industrialization would be ‘the primary task that will face a reborn Korea’, failing to anticipate like many in the West the sudden outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

When hostilities ended three years later, the economy along with the little industry that was left from the Japanese occupation was inevitably close to non-existent. South Korea, with an average monthly income of $100 per person, was firmly planted in the status of a third world country- it was certainly doing much worse than Thailand, which perversely had its economy boosted in part due to a demand in Thai goods as a result of the Korean War. 

Like many countries in the region and especially after the devastation from the war, South Korea’s road to prosperity and democratization was a rocky one. Syngman Rhee’s postwar administration that led the country from 1948 was plagued with corruption, political repression, and little in the way of development, yet it stubbornly clung onto power particularly in its later years. By the time he fled in 1960 in the face of mass demonstrations that could not be beaten by his usual armory of violent suppression, as well as extreme US pressure, Rhee had left the country in economic strife, and consolidated a trend of long periods of autocratic rule that was to shape South Korea in the decades to come. 

In this picture taken on December 31, 2013, a letter from former President Park Chung-hee to the miners and nurses who were working in Germany is displayed at the Memorial House of Miners and Nurses Dispatched to Germany in Seoul. Fifty years ago, several hundred South Koreans went to work in German mines — the first wave of a flood of Korean migrants whose remittances helped jumpstart one of the great economic transformations of the modern age. AFP PHOTO / Woohae CHO (Photo by WOOHAE CHO / AFP)

Park Chung-Hee

Of course, there was no better-placed authority to govern in this way than the military, and after a brief flirtation with democracy for a little over a year, a military coup overthrew what was to be the last civilian-led administration in the next three decades. At the helm of the takeover was army general Park Chung-hee, perhaps near the top of the list of role models for prime minister Prayut or general Apirat Kongsompong. A fervent anti-Communist, tired of underdevelopment and political infighting, Park initiated a number of economic reforms regarded by many as crucial to South Korea’s growth, the most famous being the ‘five-year plans’ that transformed the primarily rural country into the exporter of high-end electronics that we know today. 

However, a more relevant policy and often hidden under the shadow of the more famous five-year plans was the Saemaul Undong, or ‘New Village Movement’.

Modernizing countryside communities with initiatives such as introducing electricity and subsidies to help farmers earn more growing subsistence crops, it was a successful, concerted effort at reducing rural-urban inequality. Thailand meanwhile, prioritized urban infrastructure to support the business and industrial sectors. Combined with the lack of power of regional authorities, this neglect has played a part in ensuring Thailand has currently one of the highest levels of inequality on the planet.  

South Korean leftist students stage a protest outside Federation of Korea Industries (FKI) building in Seoul 23 January, demanding the dissolution of the country’s family-controlled conglomerates, known here as chaebols. FKI is the lobbying arm of the federation of conglomerates. AFP PHOTO (Photo by LEE JAE-WON / AFP)

The Chaebols

It was during Park’s regime that he also initiated policies responsible for the huge expansion of Chaebols, family-owned businesses that grew into corporate titans with significant state support, encompassing familiar names like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG. While it becomes instantly possible to see parallels with the Thai business elites that hold sway over many sectors of the economy today, the key to the success of a Chaebol rested crucially upon efficiency and the need to deliver results, as opposed to having the right political connections. Furthermore, the state made sure that there were several Chaebols competing in each sector to ensure they remained competitive, as opposed to the monopoly that many Thai conglomerations enjoy. 

All these factors made Chaebols one of the most distinctive and most successful features of the Korean economy. Their reliance on good performance to maintain their influence within the state tied the companies with South Korea’s growth in such a way that neither could be separated from the other.

On the other hand, Thailand’s business elites seem to have fully consolidated their deeply entrenched and symbiotic relationship with the political establishment. History, in this case, can be just as much a hindrance as it can be enlightening, and if instances such as the Yoovidhya case or the role of the True Move network in tracking down government activists are anything to go by, then it certainly will take a long time for Thailand to shed its reputation of a political climate beset with crony capitalism. 

Of course, the Chaebols are far from a paragon of virtue and altruism. Scandals ranging from the predictably corrupt to the downright bizarre are far from uncommon. However, that court trials follow many of these instances along with actual legal repercussions goes to suggest that their dependency on a state-sanctioned mandate to aid South Korea’s development curbs their worst excesses and means they are often more accountable to the public, at least more so than in Thailand. 

Park’s legacy, The Kwangju Massacre and South Korea’s ‘1976 moment’

Two young South Korean residents visit the Kwangju massacre memorial cemetery in Kwanju 17 May, 2000. where some 166 people were killed during the 1980 democracy movement by the government troops. South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung will attend the ceremony of the 20th anniversary of the massacre tomorrow. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO (Photo by CHOO YOUN-KONG / AFP)

“Dictators are rulers who always look good until the last ten minutes,” so went a saying supposedly attributed to Czech foreign minister and national icon, Jan Masaryk.

The quote took a far more literal turn in 1979 for Park Chung-Hee when he was violently assassinated by his own security chief during yet another period of widespread dissatisfaction with autocratic rule. His sudden death and the political turmoil that followed left behind a complicated legacy. His extensive economic reforms and grand plans for South Korea’s place in the world came hand in hand with a nauseating climate of extreme political repression. Trade unions were banned while leading pro-democracy figures were harassed, driven into exile, or assassinated.

Yet after almost twenty years under Park, many Koreans had experienced enough. Even the combination of drastically improved living conditions and systematic state oppression was not enough to stifle democratic sentiment, perhaps a sign that military rule in a country with a strong tradition of political resistance was a fundamentally unsustainable prospect.

In any case, Park’s death gave pro-democracy movements renewed impetus to continue and figures in the military establishment more opportunities to scheme amongst themselves. Tensions exacerbated by the brief power vacuum came to a head in May of 1980, when pro-democracy protests in the city of Kwangju spiraled into a full-scale insurrection. The paratroopers that were dispatched to restore order, in turn, began to massacre protestors and civilians alike; particularly grim accounts talk about the indiscriminate use of flamethrowers and bayonets on the citizens. Official numbers placed the death toll at around 200, although many accounts talk of figures up to ten times higher.

While this state-sanctioned act of savagery, along with many other acts of violent repression was enough to solidify further military rule for another decade, it also planted the seeds for further democratic movements throughout the 1980s. The Kwangju ‘incident’ or ‘massacre’ as it widely became known, stained the international and domestic legitimacy of successive military governments and it was under this immense pressure that Roh Tae-Woo, South Korea’s last military president, steadily implemented much-anticipated political reforms. His eight-point plan that most importantly enabled South Koreans to directly vote for the president for the first time ensured the transition to democracy was largely peaceful. 

Unlike Thailand and its uneasy decades-long relationship with the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, an incident that has its own marked parallels with Kwangju given the involvement by state apparatus, South Koreans have been able to tackle the memory of Kwangju head-on to significant effect. Not too long after the election of the first civilian government in 1992, top-level military officials, including two former presidents, were indicted for their responsibilities for the massacre. Meanwhile, survivors were granted state benefits and the gravesites where many of the victims were buried was designated a national cemetery. 

The ways in which the newly-democratized South Korean government respectfully treated the memories of Kwangju is a case in point of a “joint product of the labors of government, the ruling and opposition parties, students, intellectuals, and- above all- the people of the nation” in the words of Korean scholar Masao Okonogi. A sufficient re-evaluation of such a traumatic event required state backing, which in turn materialized largely due to public pressure. Things perhaps seem to be looking upon this front in regards to Thailand and 1976; the unprecedented anti-government protests this year seem to provide the biggest opportunity yet for the country to face its past as more and more of the younger generation eagerly delve into Thailand’s checkered history. 

While many of South Korea’s successes occurred in a postwar world unrecognizable to many of us, a whistlestop tour through its history unravels many shared experiences that those in Thailand will find all too familiar: stark levels of rural-urban inequality, a distinct and hugely powerful business elite, not to mention the political turmoil and the ominously long shadow of the military above it all.

Therefore, a cursory glance at our distant Asian neighbor might not lead to any quick and easy solutions, but figuring out how South Korea has managed to banish these problems and why Thailand has still not managed to do so is certainly worth anyone’s time.    


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