Notes from the Field

Korea’s Dynamic Politics: A Source of Lessons for Emerging Asia

May 13, 2009

Korea is well known for the massive and frequent street demonstrations organized by various civil society groups to bring pressure on the government over issues of the day. Last spring, we witnessed the sight of hundreds of thousands of Koreans marching with candles almost every night for two months to protest against importing beef from the United States. Many smaller demonstrations take place every week at the Seoul City Hall Plaza. Less well known, however, is that these public demonstrations are increasingly becoming part of non-governmental groups’ strategies to bring about changes in public laws, regulations, and processes. These strategies have sometimes borne fruit. As a result of this interplay between a very activist civil society and a large government bureaucracy, Korea’s public governance has gradually become more transparent, accessible, responsive, and service-oriented.

The Asia Foundation’s Korea office recently organized a one-week program for government officials and civil society leaders from eight emerging Asian countries – Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines – to study Korea’s experience and draw lessons for improving governance in their own countries. The program, supported by the Korean Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management (KDI), was entitled “Good Governance and the Role of Civil Society.”

The intensive program in Korea included talks by experts and visits to a range of civil society organizations and government offices. The focus was on government-civil society interaction in policymaking, improving transparency, public accountability, budget and election monitoring, and other areas. They visited the National Human Rights Commission and the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, two organizations that were established largely from popular action and pressure by civil society. The presidential Blue House was also a stop on their tour, where the group met with the Secretary to the President for Civil Society Relations. They learned that although these offices were created during the period of progressive administrations (1998-2008), they have been maintained by the current more conservative administration of President Lee Myung-bak, though their resources and mandates have been trimmed to some extent.

By the end of the week, the participants were engaged in lively discussions with speakers and among themselves about what could be taken from Korea’s experience. They were especially struck by Korean civil society’s widespread and innovative use of information and communications technology (ICT) to mobilize constituents and to monitor government offices and elected officials. The group was impressed at how receptive the Korean government is at engaging with civil society.

The delegation said they were also impressed with the professionalism of Korean civil society organizations. Their members include scholars, lawyers, and other experts who develop the analysis on which programs and strategies are based. Mr. Park Won-soon, founder of the Beautiful Foundation and now president of the Hope Institute, talked about his life-long commitment to building new participatory and effective non-governmental institutions, which have gained national and international attention. The group met with the staff of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the earliest and most active advocacy organizations focusing on anti-corruption and transparency. They visited Citizen Action Network where they learned about budget watch, an initiative to closely monitor government spending, and other projects for ensuring government accountability.

This study visit to Korea is part of the larger Asian Development Partnership program being implemented by The Asia Foundation’s Korea office in cooperation with the other 16 Foundation offices around the region, and with support from KDI School. Other activities include study trips for Korean development workers to visit developing countries in South and Southeast Asia for in-depth programs organized by Foundation country offices. The next activity will be a study trip to Bangladesh in mid-May where Koreans will study the special challenges for implementing development assistance programs in predominantly Islamic societies.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Korea and Lee Kyung-sook is Senior Program Officer in Korea. They can be reached at ereed@asiafound.org, and kslee@asiafound.org, respectively.

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One comment on this post:

  1. [...] The Asia Foundation’s Korea Representative Edward Reed and Senior Program Officer Lee Kyung-sook discuss civil society in South Korea and its role in the region. Read the article, “Korea’s Dynamic Politics: A Source of Lessons for Emerging Asia.” [...]

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