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Korea's democracy after the Cheonan incident: The military, the state, and civil society under the division system.

The Cheonan incident--the sinking of a South Korean naval ship on March 26, 2010, resulting in the death of forty-six sailors--was not only a military affair but also a barometer of the current status and future prospects of Korea's democracy. From a military perspective, the incident involved a serious breach of national security because the ship sank near the northern maritime border with North Korea. The incident gradually unfolded into an emotionally gripping drama as it was followed by drawn-out rescue attempts, salvage operations, and finally a forensic analysis. Eventually it grew to become one of the most contentious political issues in Korea's recent history as the government mobilized its power to defend its position while the public raised many questions and doubts about the incident's handling. The simmering political contention boiled over after a government-appointed investigation team concluded that a North Korean torpedo caused the sinking. The Lee Myung-bak administration took retaliatory measures that included a decision, known as the "5-24 measures," to cease all inter-Korean exchanges. The public vigorously challenged the government on its conclusion and responses, and the government responded with legal and extralegal measures to silence critical voices. What began as a ship's sinking was thus transformed into a tug of war between the government and civil society, as well as a test of the health of Korea's democracy.

In this article, I assess the limits and strength of Korea's democracy revealed through the events surrounding the Cheonan incident. My purpose is not to demonstrate contradictions in the May 20, 2010, report by the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) or to investigate the cause of the sinking. (1) Instead, I aim to assess the limits and strengths of Korea's democracy by reviewing political developments related to the incident. First, I examine the process of the Cheonan investigation to see how Korea's democracy worked on an organizational level. Second, I analyze the functioning of the political system throughout the Cheonan incident with a view toward assessing the state of Korea's democracy in terms of republican principles and procedural democracy. Third, I analyze civil society in order to gauge the significance of the public sphere and deliberative democracy. I conclude with an overall assessment of democracy in Korea.

The State of Democracy in Korea

The reactions of the South Korean government and civil society to the sinking of the Cheonan corvette revealed strengths and weaknesses of Korea's democracy. Just as the state of democracy showed signs of both consolidation and failings, so is the scholarship divided between consolidation and underinstitutionalization theses. One body of literature convincingly shows that Korea has consolidated its democracy by changes of government through competitive elections and by establishing the rule of law on democratic principles (Alagappa 1995; Im 2010). Other analysts show that Korea's democratization has been stricken by underinstitutionalization of democratic governance and the growth of socioeconomic disparities (Diamond and Kim 2000; Choi 2005; Shin 2012). I argue that politics after the Cheonan incident not only showed aspects of democratic consolidation and underinstitutionalization, they also revealed the structural constraints on democracy imposed by Korea's division and the resiliency of civil society.

First, the incident laid bare a latent structural constraint imposed on the South's democracy by the division of the Korean peninsula. The incident showed that a political cleavage created in response to the existence of the North could be brought to the fore by a national security threat treated in a way that compromised, or even suspended, some democratic principles (Choi 1993). Democratization in the South carries a seed of its own deformation in what Paik Nak-chung calls the "division system" (Paik 2011, 48). Even as democracy develops within the South, the division system can slow down or deform democracy's growth.

While Korea has since 1987 made significant progress in procedural democracy, and electoral systems in particular, the Cheonan incident showed that inter-Korean issues were still off limits to the public, which had no independent access to information on them (Kim 2000). The government remained the only source of legitimate information on which the media and public could rely in order to know basic facts related to North Korea. Its power over knowledge was central to the "governmentality" that kept discourses on the North frozen in enmity and democratic procedures in the South suspended in an authoritarian mode (Foucault et al. 1991; Suh 2007; Hong 2013). This power could be clearly seen in the process by which the government's torpedo-explosion theory established itself as the official truth, notwithstanding all contrary scientific evidence. The administration completely excluded the legislative branch from the investigation, and the National Assembly abdicated its responsibility to check and balance the administration by making few serious attempts to conduct an independent investigation. The judicial branch also failed to exercise its role as an independent body in the series of trials related to the incident. With the republican system impaired, the administration exercised its power unrestrained as it dismissed as chongbuk (followers of North Korea) those citizens who questioned its claims and restricted the freedom of expression and assembly. In short, the Cheonan incident showed that South Korea's democracy could be short-circuited in the name of national insecurity. (2)

At the same time, the Cheonan incident also revealed some strengths of Korea's democracy. Despite the above-mentioned challenges to democracy, civil society remained skeptical of the government's exaggeration of the security threat from North Korea--the so-called North wind--as a way to rally the public around the flag and weaken the opposition. Voters, for example, were not as easily persuaded in the 2010 provincial election as before to cast their ballots for the ruling party's candidates amid a sense of national crisis created by the Cheonan incident. They instead bestowed victory on the opposition party. Although conservative newspapers and many other media blatantly assailed North Korea for the incident, two-thirds of the population did not believe the state's torpedo-explosion theory (Kang 2011). Moreover, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) and Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea (SPARK) issued independent reports that challenged the government's claims. The PSPD even sent an open letter to the UN Security Council that cast doubts on the results of the government-led investigation.

Politics following the Cheonan's sinking thus showed that the division of scholarship on the issue was artificial, given that the vibrancy of civil society and the consolidation of electoral democracy worked in the democratic system, though underinstitutionalized under the weight of the nation's division. Furthermore, the balance between state and civil society probably began to tip in the former's favor, stopping or even reversing much of the progress made in Korea's democracy, even though the balance might seem to have held up during the immediate crisis itself.

To flesh out these arguments, I turn to a closer analysis of the organizational politics of the investigation into the cause of the Cheonan's sinking, the workings of the republican system, and responses of civil society.

Democracy's Failures in the Cheonan Investigation

The Bias in Expertise

On March 31, 2010, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) formed the JIG, composed of eighty-two experts, and on April 12 it constituted a group of seventy-three investigators to find the cause of the Cheonan incident. The ministry-led investigation was justified on the grounds that the incident occurred during a US-Korea joint military exercise, but from the beginning this approach imposed limitations on the investigation because the military itself was directly implicated in the incident. Given the nature of the case, an investigation by an independent body, either the judicial or legislative branch, or civilians would have carried a higher degree of objectivity, neutrality, and thus credibility than the MND's. The failure to ensure the independence of the investigation damaged its credibility from the start, reflecting the reality that national security issues still remained an exclusive domain of the MND.

While the JIG included civilian investigators whose numbers grew from six to twenty-seven (out of eighty-two members of the investigation team) through the reorganization, the independence of the "civilian experts" was limited by their backgrounds. These civilian members were either from government research institutes, such as the National Forensic Service or the National Oceanographic Research Institute, or from Samsung/Hyundai Heavy Industries, the nation's top military contractors that depend on the military for business. The few experts from Chungnam National University and Ulsan University, who were relatively freer from the military's influence, were obviously outnumbered by the members who were directly or indirectly subject to the government's influence (JIG 2010). (3) One civilian expert, recommended by the opposition Democratic Party, was removed from the team for raising challenging questions, setting the mood for the remaining members. In addition, twenty-four foreign experts were military personnel or government officials under the guidance of their respective governments, and eighty-two out of ninety-eight assistant agents were soldiers.

In short, the JIG was composed mostly of experts under the influence of the government or the military, a structural limitation that conditioned the investigation and could have compromised its independence and integrity. Still, the JIG's inclusion of civilian members reflected a level of democratic consolidation and resulted in a curious contradiction in its final report, as I discuss below.

Examining the Data

The structural limitation and a sign of democratic consolidation can be seen in the contradictory nature of the investigation outcome. Most of the data, collected and analyzed by civilian experts, contained little evidence of a proximate explosion of a torpedo, and yet the JIG Report concluded that such an explosion had occurred. In fact, the data that each subordinate team of the JIG analyzed and reported contradicted the JIG's conclusion. For example, after the Evidence Collection Unit of the Scientific Investigation Team analyzed the evidence collected from the ocean floor and the hull of the corvette, it concluded that it "was not able to identify any pieces of composite metal, which are consistent with a torpedo sinking the Cheonan" (JIG 2010, 120). That unit also reported finding "no signs of burn, splinters or penetration from the survivors as well as the dead," and that "most of the corpses show ... few external injuries but circumstantial evidence suggests that they died from drowning" (JIG 2010, 132). Furthermore, the team acknowledged that if there was a proximity explosion it would have caused a number of hearing-impaired patients, but no sailor was found to have the expected injury. Neither heat-induced damage, created by a proximity explosion, nor broken holes with a floral pattern on the hull were found. In sum, the Scientific Investigation Team's report indicated that they did not find any splinters, holes, traces of shock, or heat-induced damage--all of which a proximity explosion would surely produce. This ruled out the possibility of a proximity explosion of a torpedo (JIG 2010).

In addition, the Hull Impact Analysis Unit of the Corvette Structure/Management Team also produced data that contradicted the torpedo-explosion theory. This team conducted engineering simulations to see if the Cheonan would have been severed by a "bubble effect" generated by a torpedo explosion, and reported their results in the JIG report (155-172). The team's simulations showed that if a bubble effect had hit the ship, it would not have severed the Cheonan in two, but would have made a hole in the middle of the gas turbine room. But the salvaged ship was severed into two pieces, and its gas turbine room was found intact. The only scientific inference that could be drawn from the simulation results was that no bubble effect had impacted the Cheonan.

Even though the data provided by the JIG's different teams strongly demonstrated no involvement of a proximity explosion of a torpedo, it was somehow interpreted as evidence supporting the conclusion that a proximity explosion destroyed the ship. I suggest that the disjuncture between the data and the conclusion can be attributed to the bifurcated structure of the JIG that mixed civilian experts with officers under the MND's direction. The JIG Report itself provides evidence to support that suggestion. For example, the Scientific Investigation Team found highly explosive chemicals such as HMX, RDX, and TNT on the Cheonan, but did not reveal their origins. The report admitted that the group "wanted to have the National Forensic Service conduct a chemical fingerprinting through an isotope analysis, comparing explosive chemicals from the US, France, Canada, Korea and the chemical residue from the corvette so that we can identify the origins of the chemicals. But, revealing their origins was prohibited" (JIG 2010, 117). The team did not mention further details--such as who, what, how, and why--related to the prohibition, but it implied the existence of internal and external pressures imposed on their work.

This suspicion becomes stronger when it comes to analysis of the so-called adsorbed materials. The JIG argued that the white powder lump found on the Cheonan's hull and the propeller of the torpedo was "aluminum oxide and moisture," and presented three pictures as evidence. However, while the data presented in the pictures seemed authentic, their interpretation was not. (4) Professor Gi-young Jeong from Andong University and Dr. Pan-seok Yang of the University of Manitoba in Canada independently examined the same "adsorbed materials." Their additional experiments confirmed that the materials were a substance formed naturally at a low temperature. JIG experts were aware of the scientific conclusion. US experts also believed that the materials could "exist in a normal seawater corrosion environment," as Thomas J. Eccles, who headed the US delegation in the JIG, noted in his email to his Korean counterpart on July 13, 2010 (Macdonald 2010). And yet the scientific view was overruled, and fabricated data from the test explosions was instead added in order to support the conclusion that an explosion created those adsorbed materials (KBS 2010). According to internal testimony, someone at the top of the JIG played a leading role in forcing the conclusion (Hwang 2012).

In conclusion, the defense ministry was able to take the lead in investigating a case in which it had been implicated because it monopolized the national expertise on national security issues. While many studies note that Korea had succeeded in consolidating civilian control over the military since the 1987 democratic transition, and particularly since President Kim Youngsam's purge of a military faction (Croissant 2004; Croissant and Kuehn 2009; Moon and Rhyu 2011), the Cheonan incident marked an important turning point in the civilian-military relationship. During the crisis, the military leadership cooperated with the civilian leadership to back up the government's position, and was able to protect its corporate interest by being tasked with the investigation. Once the military took the lead, it compromised the JIG's organizational integrity by staffing it with officers and others under its influence. The evidence suggests that the JIG failed to ensure its independence and internal democracy. Nevertheless, the mix of civilian and military investigators on the investigation team resulted in a curious contradiction between the evidence and the conclusion in the final report, as if reflecting the progress and limits of democracy in Korea as a whole.

The Limits of Korea's Democracy

Presidential Power

While the Korean constitution upholds the republican principle of separation of powers and checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, power is actually concentrated in the hands of the president, and the legislative and judicial branches exercise few checks and balances (Lim 1998; Im 2004). The president's authority is further enhanced by his position as head of his political party. Given the hierarchical structure of the party, the president's position ensures that the party will support his policies. If the party holds a majority of the legislature's seats, this all but guarantees that the legislature serves more as an instrument of the president's policy implementation than as a constitutional body that counterbalances the chief executive.

The constitutional arrangement and party structure can combine to rear their antidemocratic face when the vibrancy of democracy recedes in society, which is precisely what happened during the Cheonan incident. When the incident took place, President Lee Myung-bak's Grand National Party had an overwhelming majority in the Eighteenth National Assembly, and the parliament willingly abdicated its responsibility to keep the administration in check. Such acquiescence was a result not only of the political structures but also of the issue of national security.

Controlling National Security

From the beginning of the incident, the administration monopolized its handling to the exclusion of the National Assembly, even though "the announcement of the administration covers only a half of the truth, from the perspective of the trias politica principle," as Chung-in Moon points out (Hwang, I, and Kwon 2010). Given that the incident was a critical national security issue that involved the Ministry of National Defense, an executive body, and that it was dogged by numerous questions, the trias politica principle (separation of powers) would have dictated that the National Assembly take up an investigation. But the National Assembly failed to rise to the challenge. This failure was no less than the failure of the democratic and constitutional principle of trias politica.

The foregoing is not to suggest that the legislature did nothing. It did attempt to investigate, but its efforts were too feeble to produce a meaningful outcome. On April 28, 2010, the National Assembly passed a bill to form a Special Committee on the Sinking of the Cheonan, but that was the beginning of the end of its investigation. Even though the bill passed on that date, the committee, composed of twenty lawmakers, could not even hold its first meeting until May 24 because the Grand National Party delayed submitting the list of its members to serve on the committee. Since the bill allowed the committee only until June 27, the party's delay in effect left only a month for the committee to complete its work. During that time, four official meetings were held, two of which were adjourned without any action because the Grand National Party and the MND were absent. As a result, the committee held only two meetings, on May 24 and June 11, before disbanding (Kukhoisamuch'o 2010). Holding the two meetings was the only contribution that the National Assembly made to investigate the cause of a major incident that involved loss of life and the freezing of inter-Korean relations. (5)

That the chief executive holds a dominant place in national security affairs is unexceptional, but for the legislature to be so powerless in a democracy is unusual. For instance, the bipartisan Church Committee formed by the US Senate investigated intelligence gathering by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for two years (1975-1976). While that committee has its critics, it nonetheless released fourteen reports and made recommendations to redress problems in intelligence gathering operations. In 1989, when a turret explosion occurred on the USS Iowa, resulting in the death of forty-seven crewmen, the US Congress held hearings to inquire into the Navy's investigation, and the General Accounting Office reviewed the results. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States created the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which for two years investigated why the attacks could not have been prevented. While these cases have received much criticism, their activities bring into relief the paltry record of Korea's National Assembly.

The legislative body in Korea has been weaker than the executive since the republic's founding. It has usually moderated its challenges on security issues, particularly those related to North Korea. The explanation lies in Korea's government organization and modern history. Both those factors can be attributed to Korea's division, which suggests a structural constraint that severely restricts the workings of democracy (Paik 2011).

In terms of government organization, Korea has maintained the presidential system, except during the Second Republic era (1960-1961). Under the system, the president is entitled to submit a legislative bill, declare a national emergency, propose to amend the constitution, hold a referendum, appoint the president and other judges of the constitutional court as well as the chief justice and justices of the Supreme Court, and grant a general amnesty. In short, the president exercises "super-power," which transcends that of the legislative and judicial branches (Chong 2002, 266). In addition, since a cabinet minister can hold a concurrent position as a lawmaker, the organization of government does not ensure systematic and actual checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches, partially because the Constitutional Assembly that first drafted the constitution aimed at a parliamentary form of government but later, very suddenly, changed to the presidential system.

The Erosion of Legislative Authority

The shift to a presidential system is also interlinked with the emergence of the Third Republic (1963-1972), the Yushin Constitution, and the Fifth Republic (1979-1987). Presidential power gradually expanded during those years, and Korea's division was typically invoked as justification. That is, the gradual strengthening of the presidential system was justified on the grounds that it was necessary to manage social stabilization and national security, given the confrontation between North Korea and South Korea. The division of the country was a structural condition under which the president acquired and exercised "super-power."

Presidents have historically encroached upon the independence of the legislature, ever since the Constitutional Assembly was formed in 1948. Even though the assembly enacted the Law for the Punishment of Anti-National Activities (on September 22, 1948) to punish those who had collaborated with the Japanese colonial rulers, it could not investigate, much less punish, "antinational activities." No sooner did congressional investigations begin than various attempts were made to derail them. The administration, which included many former Japanese collaborators holding important posts, opposed the legislature's initiative and interrupted the process; outside the government, some former Japanese collaborators threatened and assassinated members of the Special Investigation Committee for Anti-National Activities. The committee was dealt a fatal blow by the National Assembly Fraction Case, and in effect stopped functioning.

In the Fraction Case, many lawmakers were charged with being agents of the leftist Workers Party of South Korea. Thirteen lawmakers were imprisoned, even though witnesses and objective evidence were not presented (Pak 1989). The case left a lasting impression that it could be dangerous, even life-threatening, for a National Assembly member to be associated with a leftist organization. Later, the National Assembly attempted--again in vain--to investigate massacres of civilians committed by the military during the Korean War (Chon 2007). The war so transformed the political terrain that "fear became an integral part of the political culture, fear of communism and of being labeled a communist" (Choi 1993, 23).

After those events took place, the National Assembly became weaker and less interested in checks and balances, enabling the president to gain more power during the Yushin period and the Fifth Republic (Park 1998). Because of this history and the structural weakness described, the legislative body has developed a distaste for confronting the executive on issues related to national security or North Korea. It may even have internalized self-censorship when it comes to these issues for fear of political liability or legal troubles. This may go a long way toward explaining why the National Assembly was so inactive on the Cheonan incident and helplessly dependent on the government.

This discussion is not meant to ignore that the National Assembly had been slowly and carefully reclaiming its independence by taking measures to investigate past wrongs committed by the executive branch, although its policy influence was still limited (Park 2002). In 1988, one year after Korea's democratic transition, the Thirteenth Assembly held a hearing on the Fifth Republic and the Gwangju Democracy Movement. The hearing paved the way for the imprisonment of former presidents Chun Doohwan and Roh Tae-woo. In 2005, during the Seventeenth Assembly, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated civilian massacres and other wrongdoings committed by the military and police during the Korean War. Even though that investigation was limited to a distant past, it nonetheless marked a significant turning point: the first time since 1960 that the legislature seriously investigated executive misconduct.

While these developments reflected the growth of legislative independence that was facilitated by Korea's democratization since 1987, the progress was put on hold during the Cheonan crisis. The National Assembly stopped short of questioning, much less challenging, the administration in 2010. A year later, it took actions to establish the administration's problematic claim as the absolute truth, against which a shadow of doubt could not be cast. In a hearing on the appointment of Cho Yong-hwan as constitutional court justice, the nominee was asked about the incident and gave a politically correct answer: "It is highly possible that North Korea did it." When Rep. Park Sun-yeong (Advancement Unification Party) further inquired, "You mean you are not sure that it was North Korea?" he crossed a red line. Cho answered, "I accept the government's explanation but since I did not witness it in person it is not appropriate to use the word 'sure'" (Kang 2013). Not only did that answer cost him his job; it also became the ground on which the National Assembly rejected a constitutional court judge appointment for the first time in its history. In doing so, the legislature consolidated the administration's explanation as truth, leaving no room for any uncertainty while establishing its subservience to the executive branch.

Keeping Society in Check

The executive branch also strengthened its hand vis-a-vis citizens. Not only did it refuse to provide reasonable answers to their questions or communicate with them; it also used its authority to intimidate citizens into silence. (6) In order to prevent any attempt to raise suspicions, the government used legal measures such as a libel suit on the one hand and surveillance and pressure on the other. (7) The MND accused Pak Sonwon of spreading false information, Joint Chiefs of Staff representative I Chonghui of libel, and the navy's Sin Sangch'ol of a violation of the law on electricity and communication. The police arrested a college student who was distributing flyers raising questions. As a result, "The government has failed in its central task to unite the nation" when such leadership was highly needed, as former foreign minister Song noted in his homepage posting (Song 2010). Instead, the government relied on undemocratic measures to restrict freedom of expression and conscience.

In May 2012, President Lee, in a radio broadcast, referred to citizens who raised suspicions about the Cheonan incident as "a pro-North Korean group inside the South who repeat the argument" of North Korea. On the one hand, his remark betrayed a Manichean logic formed under Korea's division that a citizen who questions, much less criticizes, the government is siding with North Korea--an "antistate entity," according to Korea's National Security Law (NSL). On the other hand, he was charging that these citizens violated the NSL, for anyone who "literally repeated the argument" of North Korea could be punished under the law. The de facto charge must have resulted from a breakdown of the chain of command within the administration or the president's ignorance of a justice ministry decision. The Supreme Prosecutors' Office, under the Ministry of Justice, had already dismissed all the NSL violation charges that right-wing groups brought against those who questioned the JIG. Yet the president, as the head of the administration, went against the prosecutors' decision and publicly accused those citizens of being "pro-North Korea," an act that challenged not only the principle of the presumption of innocence but also the independence of the prosecutor's office. Furthermore, under the circumstance in which the judicial branch did not and was not able to render any verdict on charges based on the NSL (because no case was brought to the court), the president's accusation of critics as pro-North Koreans was potentially a serious encroachment on the republican principle of separation of powers.

Civil Society Resilience and Democratic Space

The Cheonan incident not only shows the regression and limitations of Korean democracy, it also betrays elements of progress. Even though the Korean government sought to heighten tensions with the North in an attempt to create a sense of national crisis, it failed to achieve the intended results. Civil society and some media disputed its explanation and questioned its integrity. Despite government efforts to silence such voices, a majority of citizens remained skeptical of its argument. The incident ironically demonstrated the vibrancy of Korea's civil society and the resiliency of the public space.

On May 24, 2010, four days after the JIG released its report on the sinking of the Cheonan, Lee Myung-bak issued a statement that condemned North Korea's military provocation. In addition, the government linked the issue directly to national security by emphasizing the importance of the military in a series of fundraising events for victims of the incident. Previously, such government efforts had usually succeeded in leading people to accept its argument as fact. Even when questions arose, few organizations or individuals disputed the government's stance with substantive information. On the rare occasions when some did, they did not have the means or the space to communicate effectively with the public.

However, this time was different. NGOs such as the PSPD raised critical questions that revealed weaknesses in the government's argument. The PSPD, for the first time among NGOs, issued an official statement criticizing the MND for being too secretive about its investigation. Among the problems it exposed in the government's response to the incident was that the government was not even able to figure out the exact time of the sinking. PSPD also questioned many government claims--for instance, that an underwater bubble-jet explosion caused the Cheonan to sink, that North Korea carried out a torpedo attack, and that the Yono-class submarines existed in the North Korean navy's inventory. The NGO organized different types of debate to draw public attention. It submitted a request for disclosure of Cheonan-related information along with Lawyers for Democratic Society, and when the request was denied, it filed an administrative lawsuit to reverse the decision on behalf of 1,160 citizens. When the international community relied solely on the Korean government's announcements for its understanding of the incident, the PSPD sent members of the UN Security Council a letter that questioned the veracity of the government-led investigation's conclusion (People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy 2010).

That the government was restrained in its dealings with the PSPD is noteworthy. Given the importance of the issue, the government could have exercised some of its power to intimidate the PSPD, and given the gravity of PSPD's challenges, the administration might also have been tempted to wield coercive tools to silence its critical voice. But the government did neither, even though some conservative NGOs protested the PSPD's actions. The absence of overt government repression demonstrates that a political space for NGOs has expanded in the last three decades.

The development of the political capacity of NGOs such as the PSPD is closely related to freedom of expression and the independence of the press. While some conservative media were busy relaying or amplifying the government's view, and in some instances were even more aggressive than the government in advancing the North Korean torpedo theory, other media offered more judicious coverage, exercising a significant level of independence from government pressures. For example, an investigative TV show called Ch 'ujok 60 pun (Investigation 60 Minutes) from the Korean Broadcasting System conducted its own experiment and analysis. The investigation failed to discover oxide, which is a natural byproduct of a torpedo explosion. Pressian, a respected online press, also played a significant role in raising questions about the government's conclusion by introducing numerous in-depth analyses by civilian scientists. By presenting different scientific assessments based on evidence, Pressian helped readers learn about the unscientific nature of the government's argument. It provided clear and comprehensible explanations on abstruse issues, such as adsorbed materials and the nature of a torpedo explosion, so that the public could understand without much scientific knowledge and even raise questions about the government's stance. In addition, Hangyore 21, a weekly magazine, and News Desk, a major TV news show of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, critically examined the government's announcements and raised many questions, planting doubts in the public's mind.

These efforts by the mass media were particularly noteworthy for occurring in the face of government pressures exerted on many levels. In the case of Investigation 60 Minutes, high-ranking officials directly and indirectly intervened in the production process (Cho 2012). Pressures from the top and outside were so strong that it was even unclear until the last minute whether a completed program about the Cheonan could be broadcast (Ch'ae 2010). Moreover, after the program was aired, the Broadcasting and Communications Commission levied a penalty on the producer and staff for broadcasting "unconfirmed contents" (Kyonghyangsinmun 2011). The production team stood up to the pressures, airing a program with only small modifications, although its members were later penalized.

Another important element was the advance of citizens' consciousness. Despite various government efforts to convince the public, citizens were not swayed. According to a poll on the credibility of the government's announcement in 2010 explaining the Cheonan incident, only 32.4 percent of respondents answered either "fully trust" or "somewhat trust." However, 35.8 percent answered "do not trust at all" or "somewhat do not trust." The difference remained about the same in 2011 (33.6 percent vs. 35.1 percent), even though the 2011 poll was taken around the time of North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, causing civilian casualties for the first time since the 1953 armistice (Kang 2011). A public worried about North Korean aggression would have been more disposed to believe the government's argument that North Korea was to blame not only for the Yeonpyeong incident but also for the Cheonan incident. But the public remained as unconvinced as in 2010 of the government's explanations of the Cheonan incident.

The outcome of the provincial elections, held at the height of the North Korea scare two months after the Cheonan's sinking, provides further evidence of a mature public. The politics of national security based on fear of the North Korean threat not only failed to help the Grand National Party win the next elections but actually adversely impacted the party (Kang 2010). A majority of people (69.3 percent) believed that a political intention lay behind the government's apparently clumsy explanations of the Cheonan incident. Almost half of the supporters of the ruling party (41.2 percent) as well an overwhelming majority of supporters of the Democratic Party (90.3 percent) shared such a suspicion. Moreover, the public paid less attention to the incident than the government and the Grand National Party might have hoped. Less than half the supporters of each party (40.1 percent and 48.2 percent, respectively) reported taking the incident into consideration when voting. In addition, 70 percent of voters did not change their support for a candidate due to the incident, and those who did change their support from the majority party to an opposition party (12.7 percent) were far more numerous than those who changed support from an opposition party to the majority party (2.4 percent). In other words, the Cheonan incident did not create the political diversion often called the North Wind in South Korea. Instead, it resulted in a reverse wind, signaling that Korea's civil society has grown less vulnerable to the government's political engineering.

Remaining Issues and the Prospects for Korean Democracy

Political developments following the Cheonan incident reflect the limitations as well as the potential of Korea's democracy. On one hand, the government's investigation was marred by an abusive manipulation of power, revealing the Korean democracy's shortcomings. On the other hand, the government failed to control the public as it wished, testifying to the growth of civil society, including independent opinion making in some sectors of the media. How the domestic contestation over the incident develops in the future, therefore, will serve as an important barometer of Korea's democracy.

If the JIG's conclusion is established as an uncontested truth and critics' voices are muffled in the process, we can point to a further weakening of freedom of expression and of executive constraints. This weakening would be accompanied by the rise of national-security rhetoric. A security scare, which traditionally helps the conservatives, would enable them to roll back liberal views on North Korea that had increased under the previous liberal governments. The Cold War perspective, which identifies the North as the chief enemy, could be restored as a result, although its specific content would be different from earlier periods. The return of national-security rhetoric would lay a discursive foundation for the consolidation of the conservatives.

If an open and reasoned discussion about the cause of the Cheonan incident took place, something short of an independent reinvestigation, that would indicate democratic consolidation that strengthens civil rights and empowers civil society. It would also be a refreshing political development--a major step forward for civil society and the public in their ability to expand discussion of or to monitor national security issues. Furthermore, it would mean a step toward overcoming the legacies of hot and cold wars on the Korean peninsula. Such an open discussion would help consolidate Korea's democracy from an electoral one to a liberal deliberative one. The fate of the Cheonan controversy, therefore, is a pivot on which Korea's democracy turns.

My analysis shows that the political developments following the Cheonan incident reveal the limitations as well as the prospects of Korean democracy. Given that South Korea's domestic politics are profoundly affected by inter-Korean relations, I contend that democracy is not a purely domestic issue. Korean democracy can be jeopardized by a lack of political stabilization or economic development in North Korea, by North Korean isolation in the international community, or by the failure to ease tensions in Northeast Asia. Even if South Korea makes progress in its democracy under President Park Geun-hye, its social and political development will remain incomplete and limited unless its internal development is accompanied by corresponding progress in peacebuilding between North Korea and South Korea. Indeed it is possible, perhaps likely, that Korea's democracy will retreat under the weight of the national division if the delicate balance between the state and civil society tips amid a scare--real or imagined--over national insecurity.


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(1.) There are contrasting perspectives on the cause of the Cheonan's sinking. See, for example, Ministry of National Defense (2010) and Lee and Suh (2010).

(2.) Agamben (2005) argues that taking an exception under the pretense of national insecurity is not exceptional in democracies.

(3.) This article refers to the Korean version of the report as the JIG Report hereafter.

(4.) US officials following the investigation also expressed concerns about the inconsistency. Thomas J. Eccles, who headed the US delegation in the JIG, noted in his e-mail to his Korean counterpart on July 13, 2010, that "the discussion of aluminum oxides (white powder) ... raises too many doubts about its scientific validity" (Macdonald 2010).

(5.) Some members of the committee took the initiative to conduct their own investigation and made important contributions to the reexamination of the so-called adsorbed materials.

(6.) When the KBS 9 O 'Clock News reported on April 7, 2010, that Warrant Officer Han Juho died near a "third buoy," the Ministry of National Defense immediately denied the report and demanded that KBS correct and remove the report from its website, which it did. Navy headquarters filed a media mediation request against eight newspapers, and the Korea Communications Commission decided to hand down a heavy penalty to the KBS's Ch'ujok 60 pun for its program on the Cheonan.

(7.) Conservative groups such as Right Korea, the Association of Families of Kidnapped Persons, and the Association of Bereaved Families of 6-25 filed a National Security Law violation suit against Kim Yongok, and a suit for a violation of the law on electricity and communication against twelve bloggers who raised questions on the Internet. Right Korea and the Agent Orange Victims League accused the PSPD and SPARK of defamation and violation of the National Security Law.

Jae-Jung Suh is senior associate professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. His research interests include international relations theory, international security, Asian international relations, and Korean politics, and he is currently studying the politics of international reconciliation, regional orders in Northeast Asia, and North Korea's political history. He has written or edited five books, including Power, Interest, and Identity in Military Alliances (2007), Truth and Reconciliation in South Korea (2012), and Origins of North Korea's Juche (2013). He may be reached at
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Author:Suh, Jae-Jung
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Date:Apr 1, 2015
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