Research

Dictator’s Modernity Dilemma: Development and Democracy in South Korea, 1961-1987

Dictator’s Modernity Dilemma: Development and Democracy in South Korea, 1961-1987 aims to reconcile the two seemingly contradictory views regarding Korea’s path to modernity and democracy. At first blush, South Korea illustrates the basic premise of modernization theory: economic development leads to democracy. However, under Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) and Chun Doo Hwan (1980-1988), Korea’s political system became increasingly authoritarian alongside the growth of the national economy. These South Korean autocrats sought legitimacy of their coup-born regimes by holding legislative elections and investing in economic development. I argue and demonstrate that the structural foundations of modernization (industrial complexes and higher education in particular) had an initial stabilizing effect on authoritarian rule by increasing regime support, but also contributed to the development of mobilizing structures for anti-regime protests in the 1970s and 1980s by various social movement groups, most importantly workers and students. By highlighting the differential impacts of modernization structures over time, my research shows how socioeconomic development acted as a “double-edged sword” by stabilizing the regimes at first, but destabilizing the dictatorship over time.


Joan E. Cho and Paul Y. Chang. 2016. “Socioeconomic Foundations of South Korea’s Democracy Movement” in Youna Kim (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Korean Culture and Society: A Global Approach. London: Routledge, pp. 63-75.


Joan E. Cho, Jae Seung Lee, and B.K. Song. 2017. “Media Exposure and Regime Support Under Competitive Authoritarianism: Evidence from South Korea” in Journal of East Asian Studies 17(2): 145-166 

This study explores whether and how exposure to mass media affects regime support in competitive authoritarian regimes. Using geographical and temporal variation in newspaper circulation and radio signal strength in South Korea under Park Chung Hee’s competitive authoritarian rule (1961-1972), we find that greater exposure to media was correlated with more opposition to the authoritarian incumbent but only when the government’s control of the media was weaker. When state control of the media was stronger, the correlation between media exposure and regime support disappears. Through a content analysis of newspaper articles, we also demonstrate that the regime’s tighter media control is indeed associated with pro-regime bias in news coverage. These findings from the South Korean case suggest that the liberalizing effect of mass media in competitive authoritarian regimes is conditional on the extent of government control over the media.


Joan E. Cho and Dominika Kruszewska. 2018. “Escaping Collective Responsibility in Fluid Party Systems: Evidence from South Korea,” Electoral Studies 56: 114-123

How does the public evaluate politicians’ reactions to crises that damage their party’s image? Using an experimental survey design and the 2016 South Korean political scandal, we explore which strategies allow politicians to avoid electoral accountability for corruption in their party. The scandal prompted some politicians from the president’s party to participate in protests calling for her impeachment, make statements criticizing her leadership, or join a new splinter party. We find that all of these strategies both increase electoral support and decrease perceptions of corruption. However, leaving the party is the least successful at increasing electability and politicians are more likely to gain votes if instead they take a clear position against corrupt politicians. Our findings have implications for weakly institutionalized party systems, where politicians, faced with a party brand crisis, have incentives to switch parties to escape electoral accountability, as opposed to reforming the party from within.


Joan E. Cho, Jae Seung Lee, B.K. Song. 2019. “Mind the Electoral Gap: The Effect of Investment in Public Infrastructure on Authoritarian Support in South Korea,” Studies in Comparative International Development. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-019-09289-y

This study examines the effect of investment in transportation infrastructure on regime support in an electoral authoritarian regime. Using a difference-in-difference analysis of neighborhood-level panel data on subway system from 1971-1985 in urban South Korea, we find that incumbent vote share increased in neighborhoods surrounding the newly constructed subway stations. We show that subway construction is effective at boosting regime support, especially in neighborhoods where people are more likely to read about the government propaganda of subway construction from newspapers. We also provide anecdotal evidence of private economic gains contributing to the increased support for the ruling party. The results suggest that investment in welfare-enhancing goods and services such as public transportation may help autocrats of developing countries to retain political power by increasing electoral support for their ruling parties.


 “Constructing Labor: Long-term Effect of Industrialization on Labor Mobilization in South Korea”

While economic growth contributes to regime stability, modernization theory predicts that industrialization will lead to democratization. I argue that industrialization has divergent effects on regime support in the short- versus long-term. Autocrat-led industrialization may initially enhance regime stability, but it can also facilitate labor activism in the long run. To showcase this argument, I utilize data from South Korea, a critical case in which industrialization contributed to both authoritarian durability and democratization. I estimate the controlled direct effect of industrial complexes, originally built by the autocrats, and show that the presence of industrial complexes increased protests during the democratic transition period. The results of this study demonstrate the importance of distinguishing the short- versus long-term effect of industrialization on democracy.


“Do Authoritarian Elections Mobilize or Demobilize Protest? Theory and Evidence from South Korea”

 Does the introduction of multiparty elections mobilize or demobilize protest in authoritarian regimes? This paper sheds new light on this question by using an original subnational events dataset from South Korea under Chun Doo Hwan’s authoritarian regime (1980-1988). The analysis demonstrates that the introduction of multiparty elections has a dampening effect on anti-regime protest, but the strength and magnitude of the effect are mitigated by the mobilizing structures of the opposition forces. This dampening effect is strongest in regions with a low density of activists but the magnitude of the effect decreases in areas with a higher density of activists. This finding suggests that rather than viewing elections as a single “silver bullet” for authoritarianism, more attention should be paid to their conditional effects and the structural basis for mobilization.


“The Authoritarian Roots of Korean Democracy: Generational Differences in Political Attitudes and Behavior in Post-Transition South Korea”

Are democracy movement participants still politically engaged as democratic citizens in the post-transition period? This study examines the political attitudes and behavior of the “386 generation” in South Korea during the post-democratic transition period by focusing on political participation, political ideology, and civic engagement. The 386 generation was at the forefront of the South Korea’s democracy movement that played a critical role in bringing about democratic change in the late 1980s. The literature suggests that significant involvement in social movements, especially during one’s youth, can further solidify and even radicalize the political views of the movement participants that also extend to their personal life choices. Using the Korean General Social Survey data from 2003 to 2013, this study empirically demonstrates that the 386 generation serves as the dividing line between political generations that are more politically conservative from those that are more progressive. I also find that they are more civically engaged than the older and younger generations, reflecting the movement tactics they employed in the 1980s. The findings of this study show that the 386 generation continues to maintain its progressive stance and political ideologies from the democracy movement, and further suggests that political ideologies formed during historical periods may persist, rather than change, over time.