The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder Update #7

March 5, 1986

March 5, 1986 | Backgrounder Update on

Memo to U.S. Policymakers: South Korea Is No Philippines

(Archived document, may contain errors)

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MEMO TO U.S. POLICYMAKERS: SOUTH KOREA IS NO PHILIPPINES

(Updating Asian Studies Center Backgrounder No. 22, "Kim Dae Jung Tests Seoul and Himself," January 25, 1985)

Escalating political tensions between the ruling and opposition parties in the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) have led some Americans to draw an analogy between the ROK and the Philippines and to call for U.S. intervention to promote greater democracy in South Korea. However, fundamental differences between the political situaltion in South Korea and the Philippines argue against direct U.S. involvement in the South Korean political debate.

In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was president for twenty years and demonstrated in the February 7 elections that he had no- intention of relinquishing power. The hallmark of South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan's administration, by contrast, has been his often repeated pledge to step down at the end of his seven-year term in 1988. This would allow the first peaceful transfer of executive power in South Korea's 38-year history.

In stark contrast to the corruption, cronyism and economic mismanagement of the Marcos government, Chun is given credit by supporters and critics alike for the honesty of his Administration and for his effective economic policies. While the Philippine gross national product (GNP) has shrunk 6 percent since 1981, and Filipinos bring home an annual per capita income of only about $600, South Korea's GNP has grown by over 27 percent during the same period, and its people enjoy a per capita income of more than $2,000. Indeed, the vigor of South Korea's economy and the quality of its products worry even Japan.

Another key difference between the Philippines and ROK is that there is no communist insurgency in South Korea drawing strength from popular dissatisfaction with corrupt authories.

For the above and other reasons, the U.S. would be ill-advised to use a Philippine model to devise policy options toward the ROK.

The current debate in South Korea,, that has attracted attention, is focused on whether to amend the constitution. The main opposition New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP) demands a constitutional amendment mandating direct election of the president in 1988. Chun and his backers favor retaining the current constitutional provisions for an electoral college system. This debate over the upcoming presidential election process,, however,, is just part of a larger political drama. The NKDP hopes to use the issue to win popular and foreign support for its efforts to revise the entire constitution.

The Chun administration claims, with some justification, that the ROK's history of political confrontation stems largely from the frequency with which Korean constitutions have come and gone. Indeed, the current constitution is the fifth in fewer than four decades. Chun wants to bring order and stability to South Korean politics and to avoid the chaos that has characterized power transitions in the past.

Last month,, Chun proposed that the question of constitutional revision be postponed until after the 1988 election. He recommended that his government and opposition leaders concentrate instead over the next three years on issues such as economic development, the ongoing reunification talks with North Korea, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and the peaceful transition of power in 1988. He called for the immediate creation of constitutional revision committees in the National Assembly and within the government to study and recommend constitutional changes which.could be considered after the 1988 election.

Although at present the ROK goverment and the NKDP seem to be at an impasse over these issues, a compromise package likely will emerge in the future. As important as the outcome of the ongoing dispute is the negotiation process itself. As events in the Philippines have shown, a direct presidential election does not in itself guarantee "democracy." Neither is democracy simply a political system spelled out in a detailed constitution. It is, rather, a process that allows citizens to choose fairly their leaders. And it is a state of mind that allows differing views to achieve consensus on important national issues. This is the real challenge facing the ROK.

The next several years will be crucial to South Korea's political development. But the U.S. must give the South Koreans the freedom to resolve their own political differences. Washington's policy should be to continue to encourage dialogue between the government and the opposition. Unnecessary U.S. involvement could jeopardize a peaceful resolution because both sides might harden their positions in expectation of American support. Quite unlike the last days of the Marcos era, this is a situation calling for U.S. patience and noninvolvement.

Daryl M. Plunk Policy Analyst

About the Author

Daryl Plunk Senior Visiting Fellow
Asian Studies Center