Special Forum

An assessment of South Korea’s democratization requires acknowledging juxtaposing patterns. On the one hand, the shadow of an authoritarian, Cold War state hangs over the country’s politics. State-society relations constructed under deeply illiberal circumstances did not disappear with the transition to democracy. On the other hand, developments in 2016-17 proved that South Korea’s democracy is among the most resilient in the world. When political institutions failed to prevent the corruption of an insulated elite, ordinary citizens intervened. While “populism” runs roughshod over democratic institutions elsewhere, South Korea’s democracy has demonstrated a capacity to overcome serious challenges. Optimism and a feeling of empowerment pervade the country at this moment, in stark contrast to the political gloom found elsewhere. South Korea’s democracy stands out as remarkable, even though there are strong elements of continuity from the past that impose restrictions on which voices gain representation.

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