FDL-AP Archives

"Democracy in Asia"

by Dr. Kim Dae-jung

Ladies and gentlemen, Despite hardships and pains, I have been working for the democratization of Korea with the warm support of many democratic citizens. However, it is regrettable that democracy has not properly settled down in this country. Democracy has not blossomed yet because political change for democracy has not been brought about.

Firstly, while Korea was going through its 1950 Korean civil war and its historic division into the South and the North, the military forces quickly established a powerbase under the pretext of national security and anti-communism. They sacrificed democracy for the purpose of national security and anti-communism and ignored the reality that genuine national security and anti-communism works only when democracy is fully established and developed. In the name of anti-communism and national security, a bloody military coup d'etat occurred in 1961, and in 1980. Hundreds of democratic civilians were killed and injured while thousands were placed in prison and under arrest. The democratic rights of the people were extremely restricted under National Security Law. Under the police force persecutors were forced to be servants of secret policemen and the military powers ruthlessly oppressed pro-democratic supporters. These democratic supporters were suppressed simply for their belief that a genuine democracy can be achieved only through political change. For the purpose of democracy, power has to be switched from the ruling party to the opposition one.

Secondly, the most important political change - power change between the ruling and the opposition parties, has as of yet never been possible under such circumstances. At that time it was impossible to bring political change when freedom of speech was stifled, the existence of an opposition was considered dangerous, and the election campaigns were, for the most part, manipulated by government in the favor of the ruling party candidate.

During the past 50 years since the Republic of Korea has been established, the opposition parties have not been able to take power. Elections existed only as a formality and at each election the ruling party remained the ruling party and the opposition parties suffered the same inequitable loss. As a result, power abuse and corruption have seriously undermined this country. The two former presidents, Chun Doo Whan and Roh Tae Woo, including President Kim Young Sam would never have amassed dirty political funds through their secretive links with businessmen if they thought power could be changed into the hands of the opposition parties. If power had been traded frequently, public officials would not have committed such wrongdoing in their struggle for making connections with the ruling party. If earlier in the past power had been switched, policies would have facilitated the development of politics in Korea, taking turns between the conservative and the formative. Power change is an absolute condition towards making Korea a fully democratized nation.

Thirdly, for the past 3 years Korea has been practicing local autonomy. However, with the exception of these 3 years, for the past 50 years Korea has been ruled mostly by a central government. Local autonomy, along with parliamentarism, has been regarded as one of the pillars that bolster a democratic system. Without the development of a grassroots democracy represented by local autonomy, democracy can not even be dreamed of. However, under the excuse of national security enforcement and effective economic development, the people's demand for local autonomy has been disregarded for a long time. For the past 30 years since 1963, I have fought in the face of military oppression for the realization of local autonomy. The primary goal during my parliamentary work was to put local autonomy into action. I staged a 12-day hunger strike twice in 1990. At any rate, the local autonomy system was to begin functioning again beginning from 1995. However, the present one is still far from completing the sense of a local autonomy system by way of personnel appointment, establishment of regulation, and financial independence. That is the critical point which needs major change. Real democracy can be established only when power is decentralized to local autonomy.

Fourthly, the reason why political change for democracy has not been made is because the general population are lacking an awareness of a need for such change. The people are the true owners of democracy. Political change is impossible when the people do not stand up for their own rights. Korea has always failed to achieve democratization whenever the people's awareness is stagnant and repressed. At every election the authorities in power overwhelm and bewilder a large number of participants in the regional conflicts and with these emotions people have been voting blindly. The Korean people are easily manipulated by the government's propaganda which, under the name of national security, sets up pro-communism conspiracies. A large number of people have also become easily subservient to the government and its money. This was the picture of Korea until the April 11th general election was held. However, since then our nation has changed. Last year, on December 26th, the revised bills of the national security law and the labor law were unilaterally passed overnight by the ruling party members. Secretive connections between politicians and businessmen hidden in the Hanbo scandal have now been exposed. After this scandal, our nation has wonderfully been able to see a great change. People continue to express their strong opposition to the illegal passage of those revised bills rammed through by the ruling party and demand a thorough investigation into the Hanbo sandal. Along with such movements, politics in Korea is now in a rapid change and this change implies a hope for democratic development.

Fifth, and most importantly, Korean politicians are to blame for delaying political change for democracy. Politics in Korea have been determined by the following types of politicians: those who have moved around the different parties in their blind pursuit of power, regardless of democratic cause or conscience; those who have disregarded the law and spent an astronomical amount of money on every election campaign; and those conspire to win votes through their appeal not for confrontation of political policies, but for regional sentimentality. In particular, every presidential candidate from the ruling party has usually taken a crooked and anti-democratic path to win the election. Such conditions explain why Korea has had no political change for democracy. However, I see a hope in this matter. As previously viewed, a sense of awareness and criticism is being incredibly sharpened in the Korean public which, I strongly believe, will be the new chance for politicians who support a desirable political change. In turn, those who have prospered in their wrong practice of political policies will fail. In this way it is a hope that we will be able to expect a development in democracy through genuine political change in this upcoming presidential election, scheduled for December 18th. It is the first time in this land that the people have been given a desirable condition to pick their nation's leader.

Sixth, it is insisted upon that political change for democracy has to be sacrificed for a considerable period in order to promote rapid economic development. This is regarded as the biggest obstacle to democratic change in Korean politics. It is a logic backed by dictators in most of the developing Asian nations including Korea. However, such ideology is wrong as can be seen in my following two points. The Philippines is one example. The Philippines' economy was the second most developed economy, following after Japan, until Marcos came to power in 1965. However, his oppressive rule for almost 20 years devastated the Philippines economy and placed the country as one of the worst economies in the world. Once democracy was revitalized and practiced the situation in the Philippines greatly changed. As a result, they have achieved a rapid economic development and are now heading for 'developed nation' status.

Despite such insistence of the dictators in Asian countries, half of the countries have already been democratized or are in the process of democratization. They are Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and Nepal. I do believe that the entire Asian region will be changed to a complete democratized place within the first twenty-five years of the 21st century.

Seventh, the fact that democracy is inevitable in Asia shows that the recent status of the Asian economy has reached a stage in which oppressive rule does not work well any more for economic growth. Each Asian country is on the economic rise and leaving their previous low level and labor-centered economic structure. It means that the economic structure of each Asian nation is now transferring onto a stage where information and high tech industries are centered. On an economic stage such as Asia's, information flows like a river and this free atmosphere has to be guaranteed in order to promote creativity. Only democracy can make this happen. Now, political change for democracy has become an indispensable condition for the purpose of economic development.

Eighth, another insistence that opposes democratic change in Asia is that Asia has not had a political culture compatible with a democratic system. However, this insistence is abrasive with the factual truth. 2300 years ago Meng-tzu, who established a theoretical framework of modern democracy for the first time, promoted the same idea as John Locke. He promoted his idea 2000 years before John Locke. According to Meng-tzu, the king is the son of Heaven. Heaven gave its son the authority to be king with the responsibility to provide a good government for the people. Therefore, if the king does not govern righteously, the people then have a right to overthrow his government in the name heaven. This is similar to Locke's idea that national sovereignty belongs to the people and the people bestow on government a mandate to govern them under this contract. 'Contract' means that the people have a right to change the government to a new one when the government does not propitiously provide for them. Meng-tzu also said that the people come first, the country second, and the king third. Buddha insisted that human rights should be the most respected value in the world and that all people are equal. Such a statement, which came out 2500 years ago, was considered revolutionary during the times when India practiced the Caste system even more strictly than it does now. Donghak, the Korean national religion, preached that humans are heaven and should be served as heaven is served.

As we have seen in my previous points, Asia has a number of philosophical factors that compose a democratic foundation. With this, China had already replaced a feudal system with county prefecture systems 2000 years before Europe began its rule under the fiefdom system. And in China, all public servants were hired through a civil service examination. Korea has also maintained a similar tradition. Both nations also had powerful boards of censors, which criticized and monitored misrule by kings and high-positioned government officials. Freedom of press was the most valued right. Respected political leaders such as Cho Kwang-cho and Lee Yul-gok taught that the rise and fall of a nation depends on whether the road to a free press is opened or closed. Many scholars gave their lives to protect the right to a freedom of speech.

Although such democratic philosophy and tradition have existed in Asia, it failed to apply these democratic factors to a systematic institution. The western society has been recognized for its great contribution for establishing a theoretical backbone of modern democracy represented by election and a parliamentary system. However, Asia can place its long existing democratic factors into its overall framework and, as a result of that, develop a complete democratic institution. It can be explained, for example, that if a water power plant is established where a river runs, it will produce electricity regardless of the countries in which the river is located.

I previously presented my thoughts on how Asian democracy was possible in these following points : firstly, the recent status of democratic and economic development in Asian countries including the Philippines is now demanding democratization; and secondly, philosophy and tradition in Asia are composed of many democratic factors which can be applied to a democratic system. And I still feel delighted when I recall that such ideas have been supported with favorable responses. Korea is expected to have a presidential election in December, 1997. This election is important in determining whether power can be changed from the ruling party to the opposition for the first time in history. As I already said, considering the power of the Korean people who have pushed forward for democratic development, I have a strong conviction that political change for democracy will be made. As a result of which, I sincerely expect that Korea will successfully overcome the following two unprecedented recent crises. One is whether the second Korean war will occur during the next years or whether the North and the South will head towards peaceful unification in mutual understanding and cooperation. The other is whether the economic status of Korea will completely tumble down during the rule of the next government or take a new turn and join the 'advanced nation' group.

I hope that the lecture today will contribute to achieving economic development by speeding up democratic development, and therefore ultimately settling the two crises successfully. Thank you for your kind attention . Many thanks. .

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