Yongusil 92: A New Perspective on the Evolution of South Korea’s Developmental State

By | June 12, 2017 | No Comments

Given their similar postwar starting points, why did South Korea blow through Rostow’s “conditions for take-off” and reach great industrial and economic heights in the 20th century while the Philippines remained mired in corruption and anemic economic growth? The literature on the developmental state, which emerged in response to such puzzles, argues that it had mainly to do with the development of a meritocratic and autonomous bureaucratic apparatus. This arm of the state could direct the industrial transformation of these developmental latecomers relatively free from political interference and corruption. The dominant narrative in the study of South Korea’s developmental state is that Park Chung-hee reorganized the bureaucracy following his 1961 coup, making it meritocratic and developmentally oriented. A similar move is not found in the Philippines, hence the difference.

Jong-sung You, senior lecturer in the Department of Political and Social Change at The Australian National University, finds evidence suggesting the origins of South Korea’s industrial and economic transformation predated Park Chung-hee’s rise to power. In a forthcoming piece for the Journal of Contemporary Asia, You argues that sweeping land reforms implemented in South Korea in the post-liberation period (reforms not found in the Philippines) laid the foundations of development, including the formation of a meritocratic bureaucracy. In this Yongusil, You reviews his piece and connects it to his previous work in comparative developmental studies. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Yongusil 92: A New Perspective on the Evolution of South Korea’s Developmental State

by Jong-sung You

It is commonly acknowledged that Park Chung-hee established a developmental state with a meritocratic bureaucracy after the military coup in 1961, ending the predatory state and its patronage-ridden bureaucracy. “Demystifying the Park Chung-Hee Myth: Land Reform in the Evolution of Korea’s Developmental State”1)Full citation: You Jong-sung, “Demystifying the Park Chung-Hee Myth: Land Reform in the Evolution of Korea’s Developmental State,” Journal of Contemporary Asia (2017: 1-22). Advance online publication DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2017.1334221. questions this assessment with careful process tracing of the development of a meritocratic bureaucracy in South Korea. The findings suggest that the contrast between Syngman Rhee’s predatory regime (1948–1960) and Park Chung-hee’s developmental regime (1961–1979) has been exaggerated. Meritocracy in South Korea’s bureaucratic recruitment and promotion systems developed gradually over several decades, including during Rhee’s regime as well as the short democratic episode (1960–1961).

The developmental state literature emphasizes the role of competitive civil service examinations in bureaucratic recruitment, which ensures meritocracy, as opposed to special appointments that largely accommodate patronage practices. In the case of South Korea, it is noted that the proportion of bureaucratic recruitment via civil service examinations increased dramatically while that of special appointments fell steeply under Park’s rule. The problem is that the comparison was made between the average for the whole period of Rhee’s rule (1948-1960) and the last three years of Park’s rule (1977-1979), ignoring the gradual increase in meritocratic recruitment between the early and late years of Rhee administration as well as between the early and late periods of Park’s regime.

This article finds a substantial increase in the proportion of Haengsi (행정 고시), or higher civil-service exam, recruits from the first few years of post-liberation state building and the Korean War (4.7% during 1948-1952) to the post-war years of Rhee’s regime (48.3% during 1953-1959). In fact, this proportion fell slightly during the early years of Park’s presidency (38.3% in 1964-1965) and increased again to higher levels (to 55.5% during 1966-1973 to 65.2% during 1977-1979). Since the first few years of state building required quick recruitment of a large number of civil servants, the Rhee administration heavily relied on special recruitment of former officials of the American Military Government (1945-1948), many of whom had also worked for the Japanese colonial government. Hence, averaging the proportion of Haengsi recruits for the whole Rhee period without considering the special needs of the initial post-liberation years and comparing it with the last three years of Park’s rule is misleading.

In addition, the article finds an important development of meritocratic bureaucracy during the short-lived democratic government of Chang Myon (1960-1961), which was elected after the Student Revolution of April 1960 but overthrown shortly after by Park’s military coup in May 1961. While civil service exams were not implemented for large numbers of bureaucrats at the lower entry level during Rhee’s presidency, the Chang government first administered them in order to absorb many college graduates who were unable to find jobs. Starting in 1960, the civil service examinations became a wide road to the bureaucracy open to thousands every year, closing the major route to patronage appointments.

What then explains the evolution of Korea’s developmental state with a meritocratic bureaucracy? This article suggests that the land reform implemented in 1948 and 1950 contributed to not only creating social structural conditions favorable to state autonomy but also promoted the development of a meritocratic bureaucracy by propelling rapid expansion of education and by mitigating the extent of political clientelism. Drawing on the findings from this author’s book, Democracy, Inequality and Corruption: Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines (Cambridge University Press, 2015), this article highlights the role of land reform in Korea and Taiwan in the establishment of developmental states. Unlike in the Philippines where efforts for land reform largely failed, sweeping land reforms in Korea and Taiwan dissolved the landed elite, equalized the distribution of wealth and income, promoted equal opportunity for education, and limited the extent of electoral clientelism.

In Democracy, Inequality and Corruption, I argue that high economic inequality encourages clientelism, which tends to involve provision of patronage jobs in exchange for political support. The book provides supporting evidence through both cross-national statistical analysis and comparative historical investigation of three countries that shared similar initial conditions at the time of independence. Also, this article shows that the rapid expansion of education that was made possible due to land reform generated pressures for meritocracy as well as democracy. It is no coincidence that the democratic Chang government vastly expanded the civil service examinations in response to the students’ demands. The subsequent military regime led by Park could not ignore the their aspirations for open and competitive recruitment of bureaucrats. Thus, land reform laid the foundations for the gradual development of a meritocratic bureaucracy, and the Student Revolution of 1960 accelerated it.


1 Full citation: You Jong-sung, “Demystifying the Park Chung-Hee Myth: Land Reform in the Evolution of Korea’s Developmental State,” Journal of Contemporary Asia (2017: 1-22). Advance online publication DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2017.1334221.

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