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The New Political Paradigm in South Korea: Social Change and the Elite Structure
Region: Asia
Theme: Domestic
Location: Korea, South
Published May 25, 2011
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Social change may be evolutionary or revolutionary or, at times, both. Similarly, administrations may be caught up in and attempt to manage change, or institute it, or both. Although there has been a gradual transformation of elements of South Korean society and international recognition of its exceptional and almost explosive economic accomplishments, the Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea) has had two major instigated social changes—virtual social revolutions—in its elite structure and policies between its founding with the installation of its first government under President Syngman Rhee in 1948 and the inauguration of President Roh Moo-hyun in 2003. We are now witnessing the third such change—one planned with profound implications both for the internal affairs of the republic and for its international relations, especially those with North Korea and the United States. In part this is innovative and in part responsive to continuing societal transformation. The first instituted change in 1961 may not have been planned as such, although that was one effect, while the second in 1997 was a result of deliberate policy. This new change will affect the “new paradigm for transpacific collaboration” that is the title and theme of this conference.

The contours of this quiet revolution may be all too apparent to those who live in South Korea, but they are less well understood by those in the United States who need to be cognizant of their importance, understand their dynamics, and anticipate their effects.1 We should not attribute change in Korean society simplistically only to the election of a new and unusual Korean president, which occurred as a result of the mobilization of youth in his support with the assistance of a new technology and a broad populist agenda. Clearly, this phenomenon is more complex. In spite of an aging population and low birth rates, Korea’s youthful population is now politically prominent because of the extent of its participation in that process. This has occurred not only because of the development and spread of a new technology with which young Koreans are exceptionally comfortable, but also perhaps because of a malaise among them in spite of their growing affluence. Although they have greater wealth, their social and economic opportunities at the societal apex have been somewhat restricted by an entrenched elite based in considerable part on an educational structure that allows the perpetuation of their status and entrenched interests. President Roh’s more egalitarian and populist appeal, as well as his personal example, have been attractive. We should not underestimate the depth of the implications of what is under way, even if what has been suggested or planned does not totally reach fruition, as already seems evident. This paper contends that these attempted changes are important and may be as historically significant as those two previous revolutions, although they are unlikely to be as sweeping or as permanent as some might desire or expect.

This paper does not attempt, and should not be interpreted as attempting, to judge the value or the legitimacy of the policies that embody these changes. Ultimately, the Korean people will pass judgement on what is planned in the new “participatory democracy,” as this administration has called itself, but the United States will have to determine how such changes, and the attitudes that have prompted their consideration, will affect Korean-U.S. relations and the alliance and initiate any adjustments in U.S. thinking and operations that may be necessary. Koreans, for their part, need to apprehend the implications of these proposed changes for the alliance as well, including the likely domestic response within the United States to Korean behavior.

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