Democratization and Building a Democratic Army: Lessons from South Korea

By Jongseok Woo | Assistant Professor of Government and International Affairs - University of South Florida | Mar 28, 2014
Democratization and Building a Democratic Army: Lessons from South Korea
Kim Young Sam mourns the death of Kim Dae Jung in 2009.

This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More

Democratization in a country is not just about electing new leaders through free, fair, and competitive elections; it entails a much more comprehensive political overhaul, including deposing ruling elites from the previous autocratic regime, building workable democratic institutions with a new constitution, reaping support from pro-democracy civil society groups, and managing national security and order. Possibly the most significant factor in the success or failure of a state’s democratic transition and subsequent consolidation is establishing a firm and democratic control over the armed forces. Without depoliticizing the once-politically dominant military and making top military officials politically neutral and subordinated under democratically elected leaders, the post-democratization political process of a nation is destined to be highly unstable and most likely will derail from the route to democratic consolidation.

How does a democratizing state depoliticize the military and put it under firm civilian control? How does it build a democratic military—one that “supports democratic governance, not one or another political party?”[1] The main purpose of this article is to address these questions by drawing lessons from the South Korean experiences of democratization and depoliticization of the military that showcase one of the most prominent success stories among the “third wave” democratizers around the world. The democratization in South Korea that began in the late 1980s eliminated the vestiges of the three decade-long military dictatorship, placed the armed forces under firm civilian control, and managed to have peaceful leadership handovers for more than two decades without any significant political turmoil, including political interference from the military.

This article makes three main arguments. First, the speed and mode of democratic transition influenced civil–military relations in South Korea. The country’s democratic movement began from below (especially among college students and blue-collar workers) but succeeded through an elite compromise that brought political stability and eliminated the military’s justification for political intervention. Second, the Roh Tae Woo presidency (1988–1992), as a quasi-military and quasi-civilian government, served to overcome the “praetorian problem” and subsequently provided a slow but stable transition to a full civilian regime. Finally, building a democratic army is dependent upon civilian leaders’ willingness and ability to reform the military to be a unified and cohesive organ.[2] In South Korea, the Kim Young Sam government (1993–1997) removed politically influential officers by dissolving the Hanahoe (meaning “one mind”), a hegemonic faction within the army. This article concludes with thoughts on what theoretical and policy insights the South Korean experience can impart to other countries, especially some of the Middle Eastern states currently on a mission to depoliticize their armed forces.

Mode of Democratization and Political Stability

A key to successful democratization, including preventing the armed forces from intervening in the political process, is managing political stability and order. More often than not, pro-democracy activists tend to be impatient and overambitious about political reforms and want change all at once. Such a sweeping reform movement is likely to create political turmoil and a lack of order, which might provide the military with a window of opportunity to return for political domination. In this sense, the key to successful democratization and the military’s depoliticization is less about speedy democratic reforms than about whether the reformists are able to maintain political stability throughout the transition process, even though it might delay the advent of full democracy.

The South Korean case of democratization is what Samuel Huntington called the “transplacement mode” of transition, which “resulted largely from joint action by government and opposition groups.”[3] In this transition mode, elites from both the authoritarian government and pro-democracy forces are committed to “compromise and moderation” and therefore work to minimize political violence.[4] The first stage of democratization in South Korea was led by the somewhat radical and militant minjung (people’s) movement that included college students, blue-collar labor unions, peasants, and the urban poor. In general, the aim of the minjung movement was not limited to establishing a liberal democracy, but was aimed at enacting revolution through violent demonstrations against the Chun Doo Hwan dictatorship (1980–1987). However, democratization in South Korea moved to the next stage in June 1987 when Roh Tae Woo, the second most important figure in the Chun regime and the dictator’s handpicked successor, pronounced the Declaration of Democratization and Reforms. This measure included constitutional revision for direct presidential elections, political amnesty, the restoration of political dissidents’ civil rights, and freedom of the press.[5]

Political elites from both the old regime and pro-democracy groups accepted the proposal and, from then on, elites and white-collar civil society groups took the center stage of democratic reform and marginalized the influence of the minjung movement. Based on the declaration, both Roh and the opposition leaders worked to rewrite the constitution by creating an eight-member working group; the National Assembly approved the new constitution in October 1987. The elites’ compromise and the new constitution facilitated the first democratic presidential election in South Korea since General Park Jung Hee’s coup abolished the fledgling democratic government in 1961. Democratization enacted by elites could have limited the speed and scope of democratic reforms, as it reflected the voice of the old regime. However, maintaining sociopolitical order turned out to be the key in deterring the military from intervening during the early stages of democratization.

Solving the Praetorian Problem

During the early years of democratization in post-authoritarian political settings, the crucial mission is to separate the military from politics and to ensure that it focuses instead on national defense. In many cases, pro-democracy reformers attempt to accomplish this mission by making the key members of the old ruling circle accountable for their illegal or unconstitutional behavior under dictatorial rule. The reformers are eager to purge—often too hastily, without conscientious reckoning of political contexts or without a proper understanding of the very nature of the security institution—military officers for their human rights violations and extra-constitutional behaviors, including coups d’état. Such impetuous efforts can provoke a military’s backlash and encourage it to return to politics. In this sense, the key to successful depoliticization of the military in the early stage of democratization is to avoid threatening the military’s prerogatives or provoking the fear of purges.[6]

In the South Korean context, Roh Tae Woo’s presidency played a role in solving the praetorian problem. Roh, a candidate from the ruling Democratic Justice Party, narrowly won the election in December 1987. The outcome was not seen by most people as democratic progress, as he was a former general who brutally suppressed pro-democracy movements throughout the 1980s, was a leading member of the notorious Hanahoe faction in the Korean army, and was the dictator’s handpicked successor. Roh won the election not because he was a popular political figure, but because the pro-democracy opposition forces were split.[7] Pundits speculated that an opposition candidate could have won the election by a wide margin if the opposition forces had been able to nominate a single candidate. Instead, the reformists were frustrated by the fact that they had to wait another five years for the next presidential election to occur in 1992.

However, Roh’s electoral victory brought a positive effect, at least in terms of civil–military relations and the depoliticization of the armed forces. When the democracy movement was at its height in 1987, leaders in the Korean army were divided between hard-liners who wanted the armed forces to suppress the pro-democracy movement and those who were willing to make concessions to accept democratic reforms. Some of the officers from the pro-Chun bloc openly threatened that they would not stay out of politics if a left-leaning opposition candidate—specifically, Kim Dae Jung—won the election.[8] With Roh’s electoral victory, the military hard-liners did not openly intervene in civilian politics, as they regarded Roh as their best choice and believed that the general-turned-president would protect their political prerogatives and forestall possible prosecutions for the 1979 coup d’état and extensive human rights violations they had committed throughout the Chun dictatorship.[9] As expected, pro-democracy opposition groups vehemently pressed for punishment of those officers, but Roh provided a political buffer zone between the old ruling military circle and pro-democracy reformists by reluctantly accepting the latter’s demands while protecting his friends from the Chun regime.[10]

Removing Factions

Although the Roh Tae Woo government was established as a result of a largely free and fair election, it was not truly democratic but a hybrid regime positioned between dictatorship and democracy. Military officers’ political influence in the Roh regime was pervasive because the military’s support for the regime constituted a crucial component of the regime’s power base.[11] However, from a civil–military relations perspective, Roh proved to be “precisely the kind of transitional figure who is indispensable for…continued democratization.”[12]

The political mission of reforming the military was passed on to the next president, Kim Young Sam (1993–1997). Although the Korean armed forces as an institution never intervened in politics and ordinary officers were politically moderate and not willing to interfere with civilian political affairs, a small number of individual officers (or a military faction) had staged the 1979 coup. The Kim regime’s primary mission was therefore not to overhaul the entire military, but to surgically eradicate the politically active officers, mainly from the Hanahoe faction that had held most of the strategic positions in the Korean army and exercised political muscle under the Chun and Roh governments. 

President Kim’s military reforms began with a large-scale reshuffling of top military leadership posts, especially the chief of staff and the head of the Defense Security Command that had been the mainstay of the 1979–1980 coup and Chun’s dictatorial rule. Furthermore, he reshuffled more than 50 of the highest-ranking positions in the military, promoting multiple non-Hanahoe officers to division commanders, while none of the Hanahoe officers received such promotions.[13] The purge of the Hanahoe faction culminated in the prosecution of Chun and Roh and more than a dozen Hanahoe members for the 1979 coup, conspiracy, massive killings in the Kwangju pro-democracy uprisings, and rampant corruption. In conjunction with the personnel reshuffling and disbandment of the clandestine faction in the army, the Kim government reinforced civilian control over the military through various institutional reforms, including shrinking the power of the general staff while strengthening the defense ministry and augmenting the National Assembly’s oversight over the armed forces and security-intelligence agencies. Democratization in South Korea progressed toward a consolidation stage when Kim Dae Jung, the opposition minority leader, won the 1997 presidential election. The military leadership, which once openly warned against Kim Dae Jung’s political popularity in the 1987 election, expressed its allegiance to the new president.

Strategies and Lessons from South Korea

It might be difficult to draw plausible lessons for establishing civilian control of the military in new democracies from the single case of South Korea. Indeed, civil–military dynamics in such transitional states are shaped by a complex combination of numerous causal factors: if a state was under military rule, a one party dictatorship, or a postcolonial/war state-building stage; if the previous nondemocratic regime successfully managed social order, economic development, and national security; if the democratic transition brought general consensus over reforms or polarized the nation, and so on. Keeping such limitations in mind, this article concludes by identifying some of the important lessons for successful military reforms from the South Korean experience that might be applicable to other transitional states.

Political Stability through Compromise: Presumably the most crucial prerequisite for building a democratic military is ensuring political stability via strong civilian leadership with stable and transparent political institutions. In the South Korean case, pro-democracy reformers were able to build strong leadership and bargaining leverage vis-à-vis the praetorian army through elite compromise among old conservatives and new reformists as well as by gaining support from vibrant civil society groups.

Gradualism over Revolutionary Change: Slow and sometimes limited democratic transition can bring about a more desirable outcome than revolutionary changes—at least in terms of civil–military relations. In South Korea, the five years of the Roh Tae Woo government (1988–1992) played a role as a caretaker for democratization and as a buffer zone between the military and the reformists. After a comprehensive study of 27 cases of military reforms across the regions, Zoltan Barany concludes that “swift and drastic changes are inadvisable because they might unnecessarily provoke the ire of those for whom regime change means the loss of their power and privileges. A gradualist approach that favors coalition-building and a willingness to make acceptable compromises is usually a prudent way to proceed.”[14]

Prosecution after Democratization: Pro-democracy reformists are too often impatient and rush into hasty reforms over military and security institutions—in many cases without a proper understanding of the nature of the military as a national security institution. Moreover, a newly elected leadership that is weak, divided, and engaged in factional fighting often utilizes a purge of military officers as a political tactic to gain popular support. Such a shortsighted and politically motivated purge can backfire among the top military brass and derail the route to democracy. For civilian leadership to remove politicized officers and reform the entire military organization, the government must already have a strong and stable democratic system. Furthermore, military reform cannot be geared toward punishing officers and weakening security institution; rather, the ultimate objective of the reform is to build strong armed forces that can effectively defend the nation and simultaneously support the norm of civilian supremacy and democracy.

[1] Zoltan Barany, The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 2.

[2] Jongseok Woo, “Crafting Democratic Control of the Military in South Korea and the Philippines: The Problem of Military Factions,” Contemporary Politics 16, 4 (2010): 370.

[3] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 114.

[4] Ibid, 174.

[5] Young Whan Kihl, Transforming Korean Politics: Democracy, Reform, and Culture (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2005), 83-4.

[6] For a discussion of the praetorian problem in the context of democratization, see Huntington, The Third Wave, 231-51.

[7] Two prominent pro-democracy movement leaders—Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung—failed to form a united front and nominate a single presidential candidate, as both ran in the election. The former garnered 28 percent of the popular vote, and the latter won 27 percent. Roh won the election with only 36 percent of popular support. See Sung Joo Han, “South Korea in 1987: The Politics of Democratization,” Asian Survey 28, 1 (1988): 52-6.

[8] Carl J. Saxer, “Generals and Presidents: Establishing Civilian and Democratic Control in South Korea,” Armed Forces & Society 30, 3 (2004): 388.

[9] Jongseok Woo, Security Challenges and Military Politics in East Asia: From State Building to Post-Democratization (New York: Contemporary Politics, 2011), 109.

[10] Terence Roehrig, The Prosecution of Former Military Leaders in Newly Democratic Nations: The Cases of Argentina, Greece, and South Korea (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002), 160-66.

[11] For instance, retired army officers occupied 20 percent of the Roh cabinet and seven percent of the National Assembly. See Woo, Security Challenges and Military Politics in East Asia, 109.

[12] Barany, The Soldier and the Changing State, 186.

[13] John Kie-Chiang Oh, Korean Politics: The Quest for Democratization and Development (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 133-4.

[14] Zoltan Barany, “How to Build Democratic Armies,” Prism 4, 1 (2012): 10; also see Barany, The Soldier and the Changing State, 33.