South Korean Democracy at Stake: How Close State-Business Relations Inhibit Democratic Development
Booth, Marina Troubetzkoy
As South Korea is considered a bastion of democracy in Asia, it is important to understand not just the country’s accomplishments, but the limitations of its system as well. In light of the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, this paper examines the robustness of South Korean democracy through an analysis of state-business relations. While many in the media consider this event to be an indication of democratic development, an analysis of policy-making processes in two key policy fields related to chaebol interests – labor reform and nuclear energy – suggests that the close state-business relations characteristic of South Korea’s authoritarian era are not only still in play today, but have a significant influence on policy outcomes. The first case, President Moon Jae-in’s labor reform policy, deals with labor reform movements and Moon’s so-called “populist” pledges, while the second case, Moon’s nuclear energy policy, addresses his reversal of policy after the creation of a deliberative committee dedicated to the policy issue. This study seeks to contextualize recent events into a broader historical pattern by focusing on how the evolution of state-business relations in each respective policy field in the past half-century can help us to identity core interests and patterns of the state, conglomerates, and society groups, among other major actors. Although recent events point to widening cracks in state-business relations, it is nevertheless too early to herald the advent of a new stage in South Korean democratic evolution; chaebol influence remains ubiquitous, and the strategies of influence they employ are adapting.
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