Breakthrough in South Korea
Jude Wanniski
June 30, 1987


If it holds, the decision of the Seoul government to permit constitutional reform underpinned by a U.S.-type presidential system as opposed to a parliamentary system would be an extremely important milestone in the history of democracy. The implications are dizzying in their breadth. To my knowledge, it's the first time a national electorate was on the threshold of achieving a democratic process in the form of a parliamentary system, yet successfully held out for a superior system the direct election of a president. Yes, the development increases South Korea's attractiveness to foreign capital; if nothing else changes elsewhere in the region, the greater efficiency of the presidential form would put Korea on a faster growth track than Japan and Taiwan between now and 2000. But far above the immediate relief of tensions in Seoul, the news of the achievement of this relatively bloodless populist victory is most certainly being celebrated by Third World populations everywhere.

In Seoul last August, I sensed the electorate was much less concerned with the immediate results of one form of government over the other. Although President Chun Doo Hwan's hand-picked successor in the ruling Democratic Justice Party, chairman Roh Tae Woo, would have a clear advantage in the first round of elections, this would fade in subsequent rounds anyway. Of greater concern is the likelihood that once installed, the people would be tied to the less efficient, less democratic parliamentary system for many decades. Parliamentary systems, designed to filter out the excesses of the masses, abound in the Third World. They instead filter out the common sense of the masses, breaking down into one-party oligarchies as the elitist policy prescriptions fail. My guess is that by the middle of the 21st century, parliaments will be as obsolete as monarchies are today. The Korean breakthrough could serve as a model for political reforms we expect to see in the developing world in the next decade, hastening democratic impulses. These would certainly get a lift at next year's Olympics, the new president presiding over the games with a popular mandate in his pocket. Roh, who would still be the candidate of the establishment, is clearly a gifted leader; his radio address June 29 was Lincolnesque and electrifying. ("People are the masters of the country, and the peoples' will must come before everything else.") His likely opponent will be Kim Young Sam, the candidate of the younger, entrepreneurial class, promising economic reforms. It looks like a no-lose election.

For South Korea, this development is gilt-edged, both economically and politically, it now being possible once again to at least conceive of reunification before century's end. It's a boon to all of Asia as well, and to the degree it is seen by elites around the world as working well, it will have reach into all continents. According to The New York Times of June 30, the people of Seoul were jubilant: " 'The No. l principle of democracy is direct elections,' said a plump mushroom seller who gave her name as Mrs. Kang and said she was more interested in business than in politics. 'So I feel good that my business will prosper more. The president who the people want will be elected and the people will be happy, and they'll buy more.' " The lady is right. It's a buy signal.