The Korean Peninsula is again attracting attention. In the South (the Republic of Korea), the experiment with political pluralism proceeds at an accelerated rate, not always smoothly, but with increasing hope that the transition from military-led authoritarianism to civilian-led democracy will continue.
When one reflects on South Korean politics in recent decades, three experiences warrant consideration. First, the experiment in planting Western-style democracy prior to either extensive tutelage of the elite or socioeconomic modernization failed.
Second, given the Korean War and the continuing tension between the Northern and Southern governments as well as the serious defects in the existing civilian-led system, the usurpation of political power by a greatly strengthened military was not surprising. Moreover, it was a development paralleled in many other Asian settings.
Third, after several decades of state-directed economic development and the emergence of an increasingly vocal "middle class," a transition to greater political openness and the civilianization of the political process ensued, again, a trend with broad parallels elsewhere.
Many tests like ahead. A new generation of South Koreans is entering the political arena, often dissatisfied with older leaders and evidencing a strong nationalist bent. Can ROK democracy, still fragile, be strengthened, and a government of men be transformed into a government of law?