Despite South Korea's messy democratic trajectory, it has miraculously achieved consolidation. Though far from perfect, South Korea's democracy has turned obstacles into opportunities for reform and development. Highlighting four key developments, this essay argues that South Korea’s democracy is consolidated in the maximalist sense — that it has come to acquire “widespread, robust legitimacy among the mass public”. The first major development is that the turnover of power during the past two decades has enabled all major political figures, factions, and parties to take turns governing the country, making them “responsible stakeholders”. Second, the successful inclusion within the system of leftists and progressives has broadened the ideological spectrum, making it more flexible, open, and liberal. Third, “elite pact-making” between various political factions and figures, decried at the time as “unprincipled” and “undemocratic,” actually contributed to smooth transitions between governments with radically different ideological orientations. Finally, even major internal and external shocks have contributed to the consolidation of the democratic system each time they were successfully overcome.
Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Democracy, Vol. 19, No. 3, July 2008, pp. 128–142. Copyright © 2008 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press.