Democratic divergence

By Laura Ombelet

North Korea is notorious for being a totalitarian dictatorship. However just south of the border sits South Korea, a full fledged democracy. The drastic divergence in regime change since 1945 begs the question; how did this happen?

Mahoney’s article ‘Path-dependent Explanations of Regime Change’ centre’s on the idea that divergent regimes in Central America can partially be explained by the choice of ‘reform’ or ‘radical’ policy at the liberal policy choice critical juncture. I wanted to see if it was possible to apply the same concept to North and South Korea. Following World War II and Japan's departure, North and South Korea’s leaders faced a critical juncture; what type of state structure to adopt in the aftermath of independence. If we follow Mahoney’s argument one would assume that South Korea chose reform type characteristics; less state coercion, smaller land estates and less land privatisation. It’s these reform policy options that Mahoney claims led to liberal democracies in Central America. However South Korea’s strong anti-communist agenda led to the implementation of a highly coercive autocratic dictatorship. It wasn’t reformist policies that enforced democratic institutions but the endogenous growth of the democratisation movement in opposition to authoritarian rule that eventually led to South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1987. The adoption of radical institutions did not reinforce themselves and consequently it was possible to switch institutional tracks to democracy. 

In North Korea a communist state was imposed and although conditions were harsh, North Koreans were better off than their southern counterparts. Therefore, there was no development of a democratisation movement in response to autocracy and endogenous change did not occur.

Although Mahoney’s theory of ‘reform’ versus ‘radicalisation’ is applicable to Central America, the same cannot be said for North and South Korea. The growth of the democratic movement is only one part of South Korea’s democratic growth story, however it is possible to see that regime divergence often has many causes.