South Korea has been a democratic country for over a decade now: Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945. A joint military government by the United States in the south and the Soviet Union in the north ruled the country until 1948, when power was handed over quite prematurely to the Koreans themselves. A communist autocracy was established in the north by Kim il Sung, and a thinly democratic autocracy in the south by Syngman Rhee. North Korea is still a communist autocracy ruled by Kim il Sung's son, Kim Jong il. After 40 years of dictatorships, military coups, imperial presidencies, various rebellions, uprisings and subsequent government crack downs, South Koreas efforts toward democracy finally came to fruition in 1988 when President Roh Tae-woo took office in the first peaceful transfer of power in South Korean history. Forty years. South Korea is a country, like its neighbor Japan, that has lacked any substantial democratic heritage and yet has shown itself to be relatively conducive to a democratic government. A Chilean diplomat I recently spoke with pointed out that this favorable environment is probably due to the high degree of social conformity in these cultures. Even if a democratic government is unfamiliar to the people, its creation is possible because everyone has a relatively unified political vision anyway. (And what do Chileans know about Korean democracy, you ask? Quite a bit, considering that modern Chilean politics are nearly identical to South Korea's, moving from military autocracy under Gen. Pinochet to a fledgling democracy struggling to cope with freedom and all the dangers it entails.) This little history lesson is, of course, related to Iraq and the simplistic picture most Americans have of planting democracy all over the globe. America is not Johnny Appleseed and democracy isn't something you just carry in a knapsack, throwing a handful here, a handful there, and expecting the rain to make it grow. It's a struggle fought for decades and centuries, often fruitlessly. Iraq does not have a heritage of democracy. It does not have the sort of social uniformity that has helped Korean democracy along. Its economy is in shambles, its people broken by decades of war, oppression and poverty. George Marshall said it quite well, speaking about Korea in 1946: "When a people starve, they are unprepared to learn democracy." Are we intent on "enduring freedom" in Iraq? Wonderful. Then we should take South Korea's struggle as our most wildly optimistic blueprint. And finally, before we allow our evangelical fervor to let the world render us completely unreflective, maybe we should take a long look inward at our own political freedom. The ultimate test of a democratic society is not just its toleration of dissent, but its active engagement in dialogue. Likewise, the true test of a democratic government is not its ability to dispense "freedom" by smart bombs, but its capacity to acknowledge and respect the sovereign decisions that other democracies have already formed. Given the state of political discourse at home, as well as our current attitudes towards the people of France, Germany, Russia and other democracies that will not march lock-step with us to the beat of the war drums, the question arises: Exactly what kind of "democracy" is it that Bush plans to install in Baghdad?
ISSUE 116 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/18/2003
Staff Writer Dan Schramm is a junior from St. Louis, Mo. He is a philosophy major studying in South Korea this semester.