Debating Economic Democracy in South Korea
The Costs of Commensurability
Author: Jamie Doucette
In the 2012 Korean presidential election, both liberal and conservative parties fought their campaigns on the slogan of "economic democratization," marking a strong departure from past presidential elections and the growth-first policies of the then-incumbent conservative administration. Both parties pledged to tackle growing social polarization and the concentration of economic power by reforming the corporate governance of Korea's large, family-led conglomerates (chaebol), to the degree that chaebol reform itself became synonymous with economic democratization. This focus led to a series of heated exchanges among liberal-left reformers about the vision of economic democratization being promoted, with one camp favoring the creation of a “fair market” through the restructuring of the chaebol and another promoting the protection of the chaebol’s management rights over their affiliates as a desirable strategy for the creation of a Korean welfare state. This essay examines the long-standing tensions between these two liberal-left perspectives and argues that the capital-centric and market-based visions these camps promoted risk confining intellectual debate over the meaning of economic democracy within boundaries that serve dominant political interests.