Can Mubarak follow South Korea’s path?

Author: Peter M. Beck, East West Center, Honolulu

As the world holds its breath to learn if the Egyptian people’s amazing struggle for democracy ends with a breakthrough or a bloodbath, President Hosni Mubarak would do well to consider the South Korea option. Ultimately, Korea’s dictators and democracy were both winners.

Like Egyptians, South Koreans endured decades of American-backed dictatorship. In the spring of 1987, Korea’s military government held sham elections not unlike the ones held in Egypt last November. In both places, a combination of repression and rising expectations proved a combustible mix. If the actual trigger for Egyptians was the sudden overthrow of Tunisia’s dictatorship last month, Koreans drew inspiration from the ‘People Power’ overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines the year before. Indeed, ‘Marcos’ became a code word for Korean reporters to describe their own dictatorship.

As in Cairo today, student-led demonstrations drew hundreds of thousands into the streets of Seoul 24 years ago. Like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Korea’s Christians played a supporting role at the outset. After weeks of clashes and teargas, on June 29 the government announced that a free and fair direct presidential election would be held within six months. Given that almost exactly seven years earlier, the military unleashed a crackdown that killed over 200 citizens, the question we must ask is, what had changed?

When facing persistent social unrest, all dictators invariably calculate the hard costs of cracking down versus opening up. In 1980, Korea’s coup leaders correctly determined that there would be little or no cost for killing. Indeed, within months of wiping the blood off of his hands, General-turned-President Chun Doo-hwan was one of President Ronald Reagan’s first foreign guests at the White House. Later that same year, Seoul was awarded the 1988 Summer Olympics.

China reached a similar conclusion in June of 1989. After two weeks of martial law, the butchers of Beijing, right or wrong, calculated that firing on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square would deliver them more benefit than costs.

China and Korea’s dictators may seem to have been rewarded for their bad behaviour.  For the United States, the price was high. A generation of Koreans became virulently anti-American because of US support for a hated regime. Can the U.S. afford such blowback in Egypt?

In Korea in 1987, by contrast, not only were the demonstrations much larger than in 1980, but the Reagan Administration was now insisting that the Chun regime begin the transition to democracy. More importantly, Korean military leaders revealed later that they had considered a crackdown, but feared losing the Olympics if they had turned the streets of Seoul red.

Many pundits declare that the United Sates is a mere bystander to the struggle for democracy in Egypt, powerless to shape the outcome. This could not be further from the truth. Not only does the US provide $1.3 billion a year in foreign aid (largely to the military no less), but the US is also Egypt’s leading trade partner.

Since last Friday, the Obama Administration has hinted that future US assistance could be linked to the government’s behaviour. If he has not already done so behind the scenes, President Obama must not waste a moment to make it clear to Mubarak that if the Egyptian army opens fire on innocent demonstrators, US aid stops and sanctions begin. Thugs and camel jockeys will prove unequal to the task of quashing the uprising. If Mubarak still decides to clamp down, then it is time to re-evaluate all US overseas assistance. If America cannot shape outcomes in the country that is its second leading aid recipient, then it is time to conduct our own cost-benefit analysis.

If President Mubarak has time to read to the end of the Korean case, he might even fully embrace the decision to open up. Largely free and fair elections were held in South Korea in December 1987 as scheduled, but due to a divided opposition, the military’s candidate (and a leader of the previous coup and crackdown no less) managed to win the election. We will never know if there would have been a military coup had one of the opposition candidates won. Once a civilian was elected president five years later, Chun and his successor did briefly spend time behind bars, but they are now living out their days as elder statesmen.

Korea’s transition to democracy was conservative and gradual, but democracy was the ultimate winner. Korean legislators may still favor fistfights over filibusters, but Korea is now the most vibrant democracy in Asia. It is not too late for Mubarak to start Egypt down that path.

Peter Beck is a POSCO Fellow at the East-West Center and a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Research Fellow at Keio University. An earlier version of this essay was posted at Pacific Forum.


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  • AK

    Both the anology to Korea and the analysis of Korea itself here are so wrong and misleading on many accounts. If the writer is really a scholar, he should have checked out the political science literature on some of his claims – the extent of US power (limited), the perceived external factor in influencing domestic outcome (unproven), the reasons why protests came about in both places (not the same), and some historical perspectives to both cases.

  • AE

    The historical errors and the leaps and bounds in Mr Beck’s logic are truly astounding. This essay is not founded in the scholarship I associate with this otherwise excellent site. It brings that simple minded moralism into the discussion of international affairs that I am sure will go down well in Washington in one major stream of politics but should form no basis for American judgment of its interests in Egyptian affairs. The outrageously wrong assertions about Korean and Chinese leaders, their motivations, and their ‘getting away ‘ with dictatorial actions are a minor detail compared with Mr Beck’s apparently total lack of comprehension of America’s dilemma in Egypt. What leverage or credibility does he think the US can ultimately bring to bear on all this after its years of complicity in
    support for the stability and balance Mubarak brought to Egypt and the Middle East and its presently lurching in behind the unknown outcome of this turmoil. Shades more of Iran perhaps than Korea. Mr Beck should take a cold shower and go back to school.

  • I welcome reader comments! For starters, could AK please support his/her vague assertions? Could AE tell us which “historical errors” I have committed? The editors at one of Korea’s leading newspapers is about to publish this article and they have not caught them. I am guilty of “simple-minded moralism?” Does the term “blowback” mean anything to AE? An entire generation of Koreans became anti-American not because the U.S. supported the Park dictatorship, but becuase we supported the Chun massacre. No, we don’t know what a democratic future will hold for Egypt or any country for that matter. Americans could elect another George W. Bush. Fear of Islam should not lead us to stand on the wrong side of history or against the people of Egypt.

  • GS

    I’m not trained in Korean studies but to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of East Asia a comparison between the South Korean case and today’s Egypt seems at least worthy of discussion. The author made a decent case and this topic deserves attention. My main concern is that Mubarak has been in power for decades, not developed his country in the same fashion (from what I can tell), lost the trust of his people etc all that makes it difficult to see how he could replicate the Korean success story.

    Even if it’s a futile comparison, at least it helps spread knowledge about the Korean transition in the general public.

  • Don Gregg (from the Nelson Report)

    Peter Beck is an astute observer, but the piece you quote by him would benefit from a couple of additional, key points. First, the dictatorial Chun Doo-hwan was the first foreign visitor to the Reagan White House in 1981, but the price of that visit was the freeing of Kim Dae-jung, then under arrest on trumped up charges of treason, and facing a death sentence. Kim went on to become Korea’s president and win the
    Nobel Peace Prize. Second, the un-named ‘military candidate’ who won the 1987 election, was Roh Tae-woo, whose term as president was tremendously successful. With the help of President Bush 41, South Korea
    gained diplomatic recognition from Russia and China, and made great progress in establishing better relations with North Korea. Roh was succeeded by Kim Young-sam and then Kim Dae-jung, the two men who ran against him in 1987. My predecessor as ambassador to Korea, the late Jim Lilley, was always overly modest in dealing with the role he played in getting the South Korean government to hold the direct presidential
    election in 1987 that was the key to today’s vibrant democracy. Roh Tae-woo, still sadly under-rated in South Korea, was an ideal transitional figure between the military dictatorship of Chun, and the fully democratic administrations of the two Kims. We will be fortunate if such a figure emerges in Egypt today.

  • US Official (from the Nelson Report)

    I have a few points to add to Peter Beck’s fine reminder of the path that Koreans took in 1987, which resulted in the deep rooting of democracy there. One was that although he was a brutal thug, Chun Doo-Hwan did make one promise that he kept: to step down at the end of his term, after the 1987 election. Many in the US and the ROK believed Chun would not keep that promise, that at the very least he would contrive to remain president at least until the Olympics in September 1988, which was his pride and joy. But he did step down, apparently because he saw that another Kwangju-style crackdown would tear the country apart. The USG had warned the ROKG against further repression as well.

    Another point is that, to my recollection, an essential factor in Chun’s decision to let his candidate Roh Tae-Woo publicly accede to all the opposition’s main demands (esp., direct presidential elections) on June 29, 1987 was the role of the middle class. (I may begin to sound like Forrest Gump, but I was in Seoul that day, with my wife and son, on R&R from Rangoon of all places.) By then, the Korean middle class had clearly joined
    the opposition to Chun. It was no longer a question of students, labor, some religious groups and a few others on the barricades.

    Chun and Roh found that the Koreans who were the driving force behind the so-called Miracle on the Han had decided if they could design and build supertankers and ports in Saudi Arabia, produce advanced steelworks and nuclear plants, etc., etc., they should be trusted to pick their own leaders. I don’t know what portion of the 84 million Egyptians would be analogous to that vital slice of Korea’s population.

    I also hope Egypt turns out as well as Korea has!

  • Mr. Beck’s article here is timely and deserves attention. I recognize for some that it is difficult to leap from one place in the world to another and that the parallels are not always perfect–but Mr. Beck’s point here is very interesting and, for me, right on the money.

    The point of this article is that there are lessons that Mubarak and other Middle Easter leaders can learn from looking at successful Asian revolutions and that South Korea’s is a case in point. The overthrow of Marcos and Aquino’s People Power revolution in the Philippines a year earlier is another historical learning tool for today’s Middle Eastern leaders.

    Mr. Beck is rightfully underscoring the lessons of conservative gradualism in orchestrating a successful transition over to democracy. That requires restraint on the part of the military which we saw in 1986 in the Philippines and in South Korea a year later in 1987. We did not see such restraint in China. If you know the inside story of these revolutions, the “restraint”factor was occasioned in no small part by the leverage which the United States had in its military-to-military relationships with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the South Korean military at the time. That “leverage” exists today between the U.S. military and the Egyptian officer corps and can be utilized to urge military restraint as Mr. Beck argues here.

    One final point: if you look closely into the poverty/income levels, education, and unemployment–South Korea in the 1980’s was roughly where Egypt is today. The parallel is not perfect but close enough that the lessons learned still apply.

  • This article is on the money. It is what analysis is all about, deriving insight from contemporary and historical examples to creatively address a contemporary problem. Nowhere does the author imply that the situations are exactly the same or require the same solutions. The author is simply drawing parallels to highlight one possible solution, namely a “conservative and gradual” transition to democracy.

  • Peter Beck

    I have been amazed by the responses my article “Can Mubarak Follow South Korea’s Path?” has generated in the various places it has appeared. I never dreamed it would be carried by The Bangkok Post or Joongang Ilbo. Amb. Gregg and the U.S. official offer rich details that were not possible in a 700-word op-ed.

    In a more diplomatic way than the readers of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser or the East Asia Forum expressed themselves, the U.S.

    official raises a point that is worthy of discussion: How relevant is it to compare the “Miracle on the Han” with Egypt? I would merely point out that South Korea did not reach Egypt’s current level of per-capita GDP until the mid-1980s. I’ll also never forget having to read sociologist Norman Jacobs’ The Korean Road to Modernization

    (1985) during Korea’s democratic transition. Jacobs argued that Korea’s patrimonial society made democracy an impossible dream.

    One East Asia Forum reader accused me of a “simple-minded moralism”

    that ignored U.S. national interest for advocating a get-tough approach with Mubarak. Since when is it in any country’s national interest to be on the wrong side of the Egyptian people, not to mention history? We are still dealing with the legacy of a whole generation of Koreans who became anti-American not because we backed Park’s dictatorship, but because we were an enabler for Chun’s massacre. Can the U.S. afford that kind of blowback in the Middle East?

    One of my mentors admonished me for not mentioning Korea’s 1960 Student Revolution. Indeed, soon after I submitted my article, it was as if Mubarak was stealing a page from the Rhee Syng-man playbook.

    But if Mubarak had read up on Rhee, he could have learned the easy way that street thugs and camel jockeys are not going to solve his problems. Aloha, Hosni!

    Finally, I did commit one error of commission: A U.S. diplomat in Seoul at that time wrote me to ask about the 1987 election mentioned in my article. I was not referring to the 1985 National Assembly elections, but to the sham electoral college Chun created to make himself and Roh Tae-woo presidents. It was Roh’s nomination that outraged the opposition; the actual “election” had not taken place.

  • AE

    The revolution in Egypt and the political changes that took place in Korea earlier each have their own context, not least as they relate to American strategic interests in each neighbourhood. Mr Beck seems puzzled by my questioning the simple parallelisms he draws between both events. My point, clearly stated too briefly, was that there was much more at stake for America than the moral virtue of democracy, whatever form that might take it in what is taking place in Cairo and the neighbourhood is different. Former Secretary of State, James Baker made the point in a slightly different way last week.

    Baker said the Mubarak crisis ‘is a textbook example of why it’s hard to conduct foreign policy.We have to consider principles and values, yes: democracy, human rights, freedom. But we also have to consider the national interest, whether or not the particular entity we’re dealing with is aligned with the United States or not. And those two considerations meet head-on in this conflict’.

    Fareed Zakaria raises the same question in Time
    ‘When Frank Wisner, the seasoned U.S. diplomat and envoy of President Obama, met with Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday, Feb. 1, the scene must have been familiar to both men. For 30 years, American diplomats would enter one of the lavish palaces in Heliopolis, the neighbourhood in Cairo from which Mubarak ruled Egypt. The Egyptian President would receive the American warmly, and the two would begin to talk about American-Egyptian relations and the fate of Middle East peace. Then the American might gently raise the issue of political reform. The President would tense up and snap back, “If I do what you want, the Islamic fundamentalists will seize power.” The conversation would return to the latest twist in the peace process.

    It was a reminder that the precise course that Egypt’s revolution will take over the next few days and weeks cannot be known. The clashes between the groups supporting and opposing the government mark a new phase in the conflict. The regime has many who live off its patronage, and they could fight to keep their power. But the opposition is now energized and empowered. And the world — and the U.S. — has put Mubarak on notice.

    Whatever happens in the next few days will not change the central narrative of Egypt’s revolution. Historians will note that Jan. 25 marked the start of the end of Mubarak’s 30-year reign. And now we’ll test the theory that politicians and scholars have long debated. Will a more democratic Egypt become a radical Islamic state? Can democracy work in the Arab world?’

    A careful reading of history and a wider set of references to the lessons from it might suggest that these issues too need consideration.