A battle to save democracy?


At Inchon, 50 km east of Seoul, South Korea, stands the main secretariat of Association of World Bodies (A-WEB). Established formally in October 2013, the Association aims majorly to “foster efficiency and effectiveness in conducting free, fair, trans- parent and participative elections worldwide”. During the Cold War, democracy promotion activities in Asia and Africa were an arm of US diplomacy. The disintegration of the Soviet bloc, and consequent termination of the Cold War, triggered a proliferation of electoral democracies around the world, already on growth curve since 1976. Samuel J. Huntington called the phenomenon “Democracy’s third wave” shortly before the Cold War ended. Since many of those nouveau democracies in third world suffered from institutional weaknesses, and scarcity of trained human resources, etc, multilateral electoral assistance bodies like International Foundation for Electoral System (established in 1987) and International IDEA (established in 1995) came into existence. The A- WEB, which has 115 institutions from 106 nations as members, is the newest and only one from Asia.

Asia’s first international electoral assistance body emerging out of South Korea should amaze us. It is true that South Korea became independent on 15 August in Parliament 1948 — exactly on the first anniversary of India’s Independence. However, where- as India has maintained an uninterrupted record of democracy, South Koreans had to wage a long struggle to reclaim it.

Syngman Rhee, President (1948-60), though democratically elected, made no secret of his authoritarian instincts. He held on to power beyond two terms through constitutional amendments. In 1952, he responded with martial law to the Opposition members who called for introduction of parliamentary form of government. During the Korean War (1950-53) he liquidated thousands of imaginary opponents on suspicion of being Communist agents. Even if one discounted Rhee’s regime, South Korea suffered two military dictatorships as well. Major General Park Chung Hee, who came to power though coup d’état of 19 May 1961, ruled until his assassination on 26 October 1979. General Chun Doo Hwan ruled between 27 August 1980 and 27 June 1987 before he was forced out of power by massive popular demonstrations. It was Hwan’s protégé and successor Roh Tae Woo, who notwithstanding his Army background, prepared South Korea for genuine democracy, leading a return to civilian rule of law, and allowing greater civil liberties. South Korea’s constitution had been repealed as a whole five times in 40 years between 1948 and 1987. Democracy in Korea is effectively as old as the Sixth Republic established in 1988.

South Korea, like Taiwan, is perceived as a test case where persistent economic growth under authoritarian regimes led to democratisation. The growing middle class played a palpable role in democratic agitations in South Korea. Official statistics show that South Korea’s economy grew at an average rate of 8.9 per annum between 1962 and 1987 under the two military regimes. While South Korea defeated military dictatorship to achieve democracy, it is speculative what the situation would have been if the country had passed under Pyongyong’s Communist rule in 1950. As the Korean War was triggered on 25 June 1950, the powerful North Korean army had an easy run of peninsula south of 38th parallel. Within three day, Seoul was overrun by the Communists, forcing the Syngman Rhee to evacuate his government to Pusan city on the eastern coast. By the first week of combat South Korea’s army depleted by around 75 percent. Of 98,000 troops commanding officers could account for 22,000 troops by the end of June.

The Korean War (1950-53) marks the first outbreak of hostility during the Cold War. The US, ironically, never budgeted for it, choosing to concentrate on defence of Western Europe instead. The Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, in his 12 January 1950 speech, had defined a “defensive perimeter”, wherein Korea was seen as by no means vital to America’s national interest. In fact, Korea and Formosa (Taiwan) lay outside the defensive perimeter.

South Korea’s capitulation to Communism was the last thing that President Harry Truman would have wanted. He was already frustrated at his inability to prevent China from going red in October 1949. The mission of General George C. Marshall, Chief of US Army during World War II, for a truce between Chiang Kai Shek’s Guomindang (Kuomintang) and Mao Ze- dong’s Communists in 1946 had ended in abject failure. According to Truman’s own doctrine (1947) the US would provide political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external and internal forces. It was, therefore, obligatory on the US to intervene in Korea peninsula where democracy was in imminent danger of being extinguished by Communist aggression.

Truman’s obvious choice fell upon General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP), then based in Tokyo, overseeing the reconstruction of post-War Japan. He was called in to lead the UN forces. The UN military intervention in Korea was also the first in the history of mankind, where an organisation had mobilised force to halt aggression. It largely drew its combatants from the armed forces of the NATO member countries. General MacArthur (1880-1964), despite having crossed 70 years, chose to lead the war in person.

“Against the advice of his more orthodox superiors in Washington” says Henry Kissinger about MacArthur, “he landed American forces at Inchon (the port of Seoul), well over 200 hundred miles behind enemy lines, cutting North Korean supply lines with Pyongyong. The North Korean Army collapsed and the road to north lay open” (Diplomacy, P.480). Kissinger was referring to the Amphibian landing made by X Corps created by General MacArthur out of Army and Marine units from 15-19 September 1950. “We shall land at Inchon, and I shall crush them” were the words of the 70-year-old General. His plan went according to the script. The Inchon landing made history. Inchon, where the office of A-WEB secretariat stands, therefore acted as the launching pad of campaign touted as “battle for democracy”. The symbolism could not have been more evocative.

However, MacArthur, pursuing his two-fold military objective — punishing the aggressor in territorial terms; and, reunite nearly ninety percent of Korea under the authority of Seoul — took the war deep inside North Korea closer to Chinese frontier at river Yalu even against the advice of Washington. This provoked China to enter the war against the US-led forces on 26 November 1950. China’s vigorous counterattack again pushed the line of control 65 km south of 38th Parallel with Seoul falling into Communist hands. Almost three year were spent in that seesawing. The Korean War that began with easy victory for the US-led forces, ended in a stalemate on 27 July 1953 with both parties back to their original positions.

As Egyptians dislike Herodotus’ pontification that Egypt is gift of Nile, and prefer to call Egypt as gift of Egyptians, so South Koreans loathe seeing their democracy as gift of the US notwithstanding MacAr- thur’s bravery. While the US was against Communism, it would be an overstatement to say it was for democracy. In the aftermath of the war, Washington concluded military defence pacts with Seoul. It still maintains in South Korea tens of thou- sands of own troops as well as substantial air power, and provides massive aid to augment the South Koran army. The US has stood steadfast with military dictators. The democracy that South Koreans enjoy is their own achievement.

Late Ambassador Channing Liem, a supporter of Korean unification, said of South Koreans in 1992: “Though they remain wary of the communist North, they reject the anti-communist propaganda of their government and seek the truth. Nor do they trust the United States. The louder the US extols democracy, while backing dictatorial oligarchs in Seoul, the deeper their distrust becomes. In the face of such changed circumstances, it is incumbent upon the American people to join with Koreans in a critical re-examination of Korea’s Cold War history and to take stock of Korea’s situation today” (The Korean War: An Unanswered Question, P.2).

The writer is an author and independent researcher based in New Delhi. The views expressed are his personal.