Brazinsky on South Korea’s economic development and democratization

We welcome a guest post from Gregg Brazinsky, author of Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy, which we have just released in paperback.

August 15 marks a date of both historical and personal significance. It was on August 15, 1945, that Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies and relinquished its empire, thereby ending World War II. For some of Japan’s colonies, such as Korea, this meant liberation from years of repressive colonial rule and the chance to build new nations. Three years later, on the same date, the Republic of Korea (or South Korea) came into existence as the first of two new Korean states. By coincidence, August 15 of this year also marks the release of the paperback version of my book, Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans and the Making of a Democracy. In South Korea itself, both the anniversary of these historic events and the release of a new version of my book are likely to be viewed with some measure of ambivalence.

Many Koreans view the period between August 15, 1945, and August 15, 1948, as a tragic one in which their nation was divided by the Great Powers and set on a course that would ultimately lead to a devastating war. Korea was not really liberated at the end of World War II; instead the Soviet Union and the United States carved out occupation zones north and south of the thirty-eighth parallel and helped to build mutually antagonistic states. The formation of South Korea in 1948 was a source of frustration and anger rather than joy for many Koreans at the time because it made the unification of the peninsula more difficult. Moreover, the creation of the Republic of Korea did not initially mark the birth of democracy but rather the formation of a highly autocratic and deeply troubled government led by Syngman Rhee. Thus, although August 15 is South Korea’s independence day, Koreans generally do not celebrate it with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm and displays of patriotism that can be found in the United States on the Fourth of July.

Yet not all Koreans view this date with the same measure of ambivalence. Increasingly, many recognize that South Korea has garnered some remarkable achievements during its sixty-one-year history and see the country’s foundation as an event to celebrate. One of the poorest nations in the world at the end of the Korean War, South Korea had managed to emerge as a prosperous democracy by the end of the twentieth century. With the possible exception of Taiwan, no other society in the postcolonial world achieved this combination of rapid economic development and democratization. This is the story that I try to tell in my book.

In writing Nation Building in South Korea, however, I tried to take into account the perspectives of both those who view Korea’s postwar history as a tragedy and those who look upon the past six decades with a sense of triumph. I acknowledge that the military dictatorships that governed South Korea for much of the Cold War committed many inexcusable excesses in their efforts to secure the country against communism and promote rapid economic development. But I also contend that these “developmental autocracies” were wiser and more pragmatic in the decisions that they made than many of the leftist dictators that gained power in emerging nation states after World War II. Moreover, I found that even while the United States supported autocratic rule, other forms of American influence genuinely contributed to the spread of democratic practices and ideas in South Korea.

Yet few Koreans who have read the book greeted my arguments with complete enthusiasm. Conservatives have contended that I am overly critical of both American foreign policies and South Korea’s autocratic regimes, while those on the left are skeptical that American policies did anything at all to promote democracy in South Korea. In this sense, the reaction to my account of nation building in ROK has reflected the continuing struggles of South Koreans to come to terms with their country’s complicated and turbulent past.

Ultimately, however, I believe that while it is necessary to remember the many flaws and problems that the newly created Republic of Korea had sixty-one years ago, it is also important to keep in mind that it did at least offer the possibility of eventual democracy. And both Americans and South Koreans understood that the possibility of democracy was better than the certainty of totalitarianism, which existed in most of the communist world including the other new Korean state that was established north of the thirty-eighth parallel. It was for this possibility of democracy that Americans and South Koreans ultimately fought side by side in an alliance forged by blood. And it was to preserve this possibility of democracy that thousands of Americans and millions of Koreans paid the ultimate price.

Gregg Brazinsky
George Washington University