The United States and South Korean Democratization
Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 265-288, Summer 1999
56 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2007
In 1987 South Korea initiated a successful transition to democracy, while previous attempts in 1979 and 1980 failed. This paper distinguishes two cycles of liberalization in South Korea and then develops a conceptual understanding that is used to test two common schools of thought. One school asserts that the United States had little impact on democratization in Korea and that domestic factors explain the delayed transition. The other school implies that the U.S. could have improved prospects for democratization by not approving Chun Doo Hwan's request to use Combined Forces Command troops to repress demonstrations in 1980. Finding both sets of explanations unsatisfactory, this paper draws on recently declassified documents and interviews with State Department officials to advance the hypothesis that it was U.S. public pressure which played a critical role in determining the timing of South Korea's transition to democracy. Finally, the use of public pressure is found to have been greatly affected by unrelated foreign policy crises in Iran and the Philippines, illuminating the process whereby conflicts in other countries that had no direct bearing on South Korea ultimately affected the outcome of its own domestic political process.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation