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Korea Blog: Reading Tocqueville in Korea (Part One)

“Culture is not necessarily our destiny,” wrote the high-profile Korean activist and later president of South Korea Kim Dae-jung in a 1994 Foreign Affairs piece. “Democracy is.” Kim made that claim as part of an argument against Lee Kuan Yew, three-decade prime minister of Singapore, who took a dim view of transplanting Western political institutions into Asian soil. Like many pronouncements heard in Korean public life, Kim’s framing of democracy as destiny possesses in forcefulness what it lacks in understandability: not that I’ve read all or even most of Kim’s voluminous writings, but try as I  might I’ve never been able to understand quite how he arrived at so unambiguous a conclusion. I keep thinking of the student protesters P.J. O’Rourke interviewed in the 1980s: “What’s this election all about?” “Democracy.” “But what is democracy?” “Good.” “Yes, of course, but why exactly?” “Is more democratic that way!”

But democracy has been compelling as a subject of discussion since the invention of the thing itself, and before the world began to watch in fascination as democratic (or at least quasi-democratic) institutions spread across Asia, it watched in fascination as they took shape in that grand experiment known as the United States of America. Of all the copious observations made on democracy in America, none have proven more enduring than Democracy in America, the French diplomat, political scientist, and historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s first-person study of that new country, its laws, and its customs first published in two parts in 1835 and 1840. “Everyone can see that a widespread revolution toward democracy is in full swing amongst us,” Tocqueville writes early in the first volume. “Some look upon it as something new and, taking it as an accident, are still hoping to be able to check its progress, whereas others” — the Kim Dae-jungs of the world — “consider it irresistible because they see it as the most sustained, longstanding, and permanent development ever found in history.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.