Congratulations, Korea, on another display of democracy with your recent elections. I lived in Korea at a time when the practice of democracy was in question, but today, in some ways, Korea is more democratic than my own country, the United States.

What is the evidence? How can I say such a thing? There are several factors I look at. In the last presidential elections, for example, in Korea the margin of victory was 0.73 percent, smaller than one percent difference in the voting. Yet, the losing candidate conceded graciously and democracy won the day. There was a transition of power, not only from one person to the next, but from one party to the opposing party. No squabble, no lawsuits, no fuss — democracy.

In America, at the last presidential election, the loser lost by 4.5 percent and yet he cried and complained and filed lawsuits, none of which was at all successful, and refused to concede. And refused to attend the inauguration of the winner — the first time that had happened in 152 years, when a petulant Andrew Jackson refused to attend the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant.

It is really a shameful embarrassment that Donald Trump not only refused to attend the inauguration of Joe Biden — which is a visual representation of the peaceful transfer of power in a democracy — but also continues to whine and moan about the election being unfair and corrupt when there is no real evidence of such.

So, hats off to Korea for its peaceful transition of presidential power.

The way Korea treats its former presidents, however, is somewhat problematic. Years ago, I wrote an opinion piece titled "Presidential cannibalism," wherein I bemoaned the fate of Korean presidents once they leave office. They either died, such as Park Chung-hee and Roh Moo-hyun, or were disgraced, such as Syngman Rhee and Kim Young-sam, or incarcerated, such as Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak. I meant by the term "cannibalism" that they were "eaten" symbolically. Kim Dae-jung and Moon Jae-in are the only two who have not suffered from being "eaten" after leaving office.

In this regard too, American politics might learn something of democracy from Korea — if Trump, indeed, ends up in jail. So far, he is only in court, but four different courts on umpteen criminal counts. Time will tell whether he ends up where four Korean presidents have ended up.

"Term limits" is another area where Korea might be ahead of America — one single five-year term avoids a lot of the problems of two four-year terms. Americans always talk of the desire for term limitations, but other than the two terms for the president, and varying term limitations for most governorships, Americans talk more than they practice.

As to which country is more democratic — admittedly a difficult thing to measure — I like to cite the example of university presidents. When Korea, after the difficulties of 1987, adopted a completely free press and wide-ranging democratic reforms, universities wanted to get in on the game and most decided to hold elections to select a president. By contrast, every American university, public, private and church-sponsored, selects its president by a decision of the governing board. No American university that I know of elects the president from among the faculty. Yet, Korea, in a wonderful display of democracy, elects its university presidents by a vote of the faculty. I should add that I understand some universities have given that authority to the governing board, but many still hold elections. And as I witness social organizations of all types, I have seen elections of presidents and chairs, and slates of officers. Democratic actions is seem in many sectors of society, contrary to what many say about Korea being a "top-down" country.

Of course, as a historian of pre-modern Korea, I like to point out that the roots of democratic action in Korea run deep. In the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom, kings were never as autocratic as most other pre-modern kings or emperors — in China and Japan, certainly. The Korean king, by commitment to the Confucian government, was duty-bound to listen to "remonstrance" — an odd word meaning criticism. A righteous king, by Confucian dogma, must engage in self-reflection and listen to criticism. There were three organs manned by youngish, idealistic officials, who were duty-bound to point out corruption whenever it was found in the government or the court.

Student demonstrations, which Korea has long called the "conscience" of society, did not begin with Park Chung-hee or even Syngman Rhee, although it was the student demonstrations that brought down the Rhee government.

Student demonstrations were found in the Joseon era as well. When the students of the Sungkyunkwan, the kingdom's state university, were upset about a government policy, they would stage a sit-in and refuse to study until the issue was solved.

Korea should be proud of its democratic traditions, and once again, it is manifest in the pendulum swing of power that we have seen this last week.

Mark Peterson (markpeterson@byu.edu) is a professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.

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Congratulations, democracy

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15.04.2024

Congratulations, Korea, on another display of democracy with your recent elections. I lived in Korea at a time when the practice of democracy was in question, but today, in some ways, Korea is more democratic than my own country, the United States.

What is the evidence? How can I say such a thing? There are several factors I look at. In the last presidential elections, for example, in Korea the margin of victory was 0.73 percent, smaller than one percent difference in the voting. Yet, the losing candidate conceded graciously and democracy won the day. There was a transition of power, not only from one person to the next, but from one party to the opposing party. No squabble, no lawsuits, no fuss — democracy.

In America, at the last presidential election, the loser lost by 4.5 percent and yet he cried and complained and filed lawsuits, none of which was at all successful, and refused to concede. And refused to attend the inauguration of the winner — the first time that had happened in 152 years, when a petulant Andrew Jackson refused to attend the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant.

It is really a shameful embarrassment that Donald Trump not only refused to attend the inauguration of Joe Biden — which is a visual representation of the peaceful transfer of power in a democracy — but........

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