Democratic beacon shines in South Korea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2007, 12:00am

South Korean democracy has proved to be a roller-coaster ride since its inception 20 years ago, with a lack of political continuity, leaders frequently falling out of public favour and the economic miracle of past decades being fragile. Yet for all the drama, South Koreans have moved from being among Asia's most oppressed citizens to the freest.

Koreans should be proud of what has been achieved, rather than exasperated with the shifting political tides. They offer, after all, one of the few guiding lights in East Asia for those grappling with dictatorships, autocracies and flawed political systems that claim to be democratic.

Democracy is an evolutionary process and there is no one-shoe-fits-all approach to how it should be adopted. No nation can claim to have a perfect democratic system. The truest test is of freedom: that people can openly express their views, choose their leaders and go about their lives without fear or prejudice. This is certainly the case for South Koreans.

Proof of the vibrancy of the country's democracy was on show yesterday with President Roh Moo-hyun's proposal that the constitution be changed to allow for the head of state, who is elected for a single five-year term, to be re-elected but for a shorter term. Similar moves are afoot in the Philippines as a result of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's push for a parliamentary rather than presidential system. But whereas Mrs Arroyo's efforts are seemingly centred on extending her powers and political longevity, Mr Roh is acting for the good of the nation. He believes the president would be better able to manage state affairs knowing there was a prospect of re-election, while voters should be able to judge the performance of their leader. Most tellingly, he has promised to step aside when his term ends in February next year.

Given Mr Roh's flagging popularity and the strength of the opposition in parliament, the suggestion at present seems to have little chance of being adopted. In the Philippines, where Mrs Arroyo also has low opinion poll ratings but has strong alliances among lawmakers, the chances are high she will get her way.

Another sign of South Korea's democratic consolidation is its desire to shrug off dependence on the US for security. Since the end of military rule in 1987, trade, security and politics have variously strained links between Seoul and Washington, despite the US being instrumental in the creation of the modern nation and protecting it from the military threat posed by North Korea. That Seoul feels confident about its ability to protect itself and has forged a separate policy towards the North says much about its maturity.

South Koreans have made great gains since winning democracy. They must remember, however, that the process has to be continually strengthened and protected, and that this can only be done by remaining true to the principles they have so far so successfully embraced.