The Foreign Service Institute held a Mabini Dialogue on “Leaving Behind the Developmental State: The Changing Rationale of Governance in Korean Governments” on 9 May 2017 at the Carlos P. Romulo Library, Department of Foreign Affairs Building, Pasay City. The main speaker was Prof. Huck-ju Kwon of the Graduate School of Public Administration and the Deputy Director of Asia Development Institute of Seoul National University.
In his presentation, Prof. Kwon examined the rationale behind South Korea’s governance and sought to answer whether or not the Korean government has created a new rationale that is different from that of the developmental state. He did so by assessing a span of twenty years after the country’s democratization in the early 1990s, and tracing back the agenda and policies of each presidential administration.
Prof. Kwon revisited the history of the Republic of Korea and its breakthrough from authoritarianism to a liberal democracy. He explained that while the developmental state was very successful in transforming Korea into a prosperous economy, it was regarded as a historic legacy of the authoritarian government and therefore could not always be an effective rationale for governance in dealing with current and future challenges.
He identified and assessed the past governments starting from former President Kim Young-sam (1993-1998) who was known for having a “Civilian Government.” Under the Kim administration, the government implemented an anti-corruption drive by introducing new regulations on banking transactions and a system that compelled government officials to declare their annual assets. While there were plenty of breakthroughs during the Kim administration in terms of market liberalization, the government returned to developmental state rational governance when it failed to deal with the policy challenges of the East Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. The inconsistencies between rhetoric and actual policy implementation led to the disruption of the Kim administration.
The presidency of Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) came after President Kim Young-sam. In order to cope with the financial crisis, the Kim Dae-Jung government implemented major reforms in the financial sector, corporate governance structure, labor market and public sector. In particular, government-owned banks were privatized, the social protection system was strengthened, and a tripartite committee comprised of trade unions, business organizations and the government was established to forge a social consensus for the labor market. The developmental state regime was to some extent weakened as the new public management reforms were introduced in the government bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, the Roh government’s policy orientation was a clear departure from the rationale of the developmental state. Instead of mobilizing all the efforts for economic growth, he placed more emphasis on social justice. His main policy program was the relocation of the nation’s administrative capital from Seoul to Sejong which was considered a policy response to the monopoly of power and economic wealth. In addition, while the previous administrations aimed to streamline the number of government employees, President Roh introduced the performance evaluation system across the government ministries and incentives were given to high performers. The introduction of new mechanisms and systems within a short span of time led to the confusion among people in government agencies. As a result, the policies and new initiatives failed to produce the desired outcomes.
The return to power of the conservative party during the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) ushered in a nostalgia for the developmental state, with economic growth becoming a priority over social development. The rationale for governance was also shaped by external pressures, particularly the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the need for the state to stimulate continued economic activity.
Prof. Kwon concluded that while there were efforts by successive Korean presidential administrations to leave the development state as the rationale of governance through reforms in the public sector and embrace for neoliberal ideas, the country reverts to the old practice especially when faced with serious policy or economic challenges.
During the open forum, a question on the ousting of President Park Geun-hye and its effects on the ongoing call for a reform of the Korean government’s relation with the chaebols was raised. Professor Kwon mentioned that the Korean society is becoming more complex due to challenges in governance. But the increasing influence of the Korean conglomerates (chaebol) and the powerful mobilization by South Korean civil societies also add to this complexity. He further stated that the ousting of President Park Geun-hye fueled the desire of South Koreans to steer their country away from its old political regimes and illicit ties with business conglomerates.
Professor Kwon emphasized that democracy should not only be measured by the results of elections but by how the government responds to the will of its people and recognizes the presence of the civil society. As the South Korean government continues to face changes in the society, it is imperative for the next president to find an appropriate rationale of governance that could address emerging challenges within and outside the country.