Research

Seeds of Mobilization: The Authoritarian Roots of South Korea’s Democracy (book manuscript; under review)

The notion that economic development is one of the main prerequisites of democracy has been popular since the 1950s. Yet the precise relationship between development and democracy remains a live question in debates among social scientists and policy practitioners, and its answer takes on new importance today as scholars work to understand what has led to the recent decline of democracy even in established democracies around the world, including the United States and India.

Seeds of Mobilization is an in-depth study of South Korea’s democratization that not only engages with but also seeks to clarify modernization theory—one of the most influential theories in the social sciences—which posits a positive relationship between economic development and democracy. Although Korea is considered a “dream case of a modernization theorist” because it democratized after achieving rapid economic growth under almost three decades of authoritarian rule, its nonlinear path to democratic transition cannot be adequately explained by modernization theory alone. It requires a more nuanced interpretation than the “dream case” framing allows because development also contributed to authoritarian durability, as rapid industrialization initially served as a key pillar of regime legitimacy before the predicted shift toward democratization. This book’s careful examination of South Korea’s pathway to democracy identifies the causal mechanisms—spatial concentration and subsequent nationwide organization of social forces—that are at play. These mechanisms not only link economic development and democratic transition but also account for the contradictory effects that economic growth can have on authoritarian regime stability in the short versus the long term.

In Seeds of Mobilization, I conduct a historical analysis of South Korea’s democratization to explain the country’s nonlinear path to democratic transition. Rather than focusing on the “snapshot” moment at which the country switched from authoritarianism to democracy, I examine the long-term trajectory of the democratization process to capture both the short-term and long-term effects of two autocrat-developed modernization structures—industrial complexes and institutions of vocational and higher education—on regime stability.

Given that Korea’s transition was mass-initiated, I also focus on the contentious politics surrounding its trajectory as I examine how the regimes’ industrial and educational policies affected that process. To do so, I use the subnational comparative method to formulate a national-level theory of South Korea’s democratic transition. By obtaining the “average effect” in South Korea from the subnational analysis offered in the empirical chapters, I weave together the findings to build an argument about how a national outcome (such as democratic transition) resulted from the organization of the social forces that were developed locally and then spread across the country.

The book also introduces and analyzes new qualitative and quantitative data on South Korea’s economic development and its democracy movement. The empirical chapters provide statistical analyses utilizing two original events datasets: The first documents college student protests from 1980 to 1987. The second documents nearly 2,500 events during two nationwide protests that were seminal in South Korea’s democracy movement—the 1987 “June Democratic Uprising” and the 1987 “Great Workers’ Struggle.” These datasets were created using primary sources in Korean, including archival materials from the Korea Democracy Foundation and newspaper articles from the Naver News Library.


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.