The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] What makes a democratic, advanced country?

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Dec. 18, 2018 - 17:18

    • Link copied

How do you differentiate a democratic, advanced country from a totalitarian, underdeveloped one? According to political scientists, there are almost always political prisoners in an underdeveloped, totalitarian country. On the other hand, in a democratic, advanced country, you cannot arrest your political opponents and throw them into jail at will. Running a country is different from running a military operation that allows you to terminate your enemy with extreme prejudice. Indeed, advanced countries do not have political prisoners these days, which are remnants of the dictatorships that thrived across the globe half a century ago.

In an underdeveloped country, censorship is imposed on the press, whether visible or invisible. Facts cannot be reported freely, and opinion leaders writing for newspapers are forced to practice self-censorship in order to avoid possible persecution or retaliation. In such a country, newspaper columnists are frequently threatened by those who have different opinions. In a totalitarian society, the freedom of press and speech is repressed, whether visibly or invisibly.

In a totalitarian country, surveillance is rampant, too. You can feel you are constantly being watched by the government in a way that resembles George Orwell’s Big Brother. Indeed, in an underdeveloped country, your telephone conversations, emails, and text messages could be under surveillance by government intelligence agencies. Also, you should be careful when you talk in public. It could be recorded and used against you.

In an underdeveloped, totalitarian country, the separation of the three branches of government, which is the basis of democracy, is defied. A strong administration controls the legislature and the judiciary in order to exercise tyranny. A few weeks ago, Chief Justice John Roberts in the US stated, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.” Hearing his statement, we can safely assume that the US is an undisputedly advanced country. In an underdeveloped, totalitarian country, no chief justice would dare declare such a bold, but natural statement.

In an advanced country, political refugees are almost always accepted for humanitarian reasons. If you refuse political refugees, knowing that they will be persecuted when they are sent back to their country, you are not a citizen of an advanced country. It is especially so when your country has signed a pact on admitting political refugees. A pact or a treaty signed by nations should be honored even after the administrations have changed. Advanced countries would not nullify international treaties signed by previous administrations.

By the same token, an advanced country should protect someone who has come to live in it by seeking political asylum. An advanced country would not threaten or try to banish someone who has moved to it as a political defector. Otherwise, the country would end up losing credibility in the international community and, as a result, would earn a bad reputation. If a person is intimidated and threatened by the country he has chosen for political asylum, he must have made the wrong choice of coming to another totalitarian society.

In a totalitarian society, group-oriented community spirit almost always overrides individuality. In such a country, individualism is frequently confused with egotism or selfishness, and therefore individuality is often disparaged and condemned. In such a society, diversity is not welcomed and differences are not tolerated. Minority opinions, too, are ignored and even threatened. Instead, uniformity is valued and praised like a mantra.

In an advanced country, people think and behave rationally, and act in accordance with honor codes. In an underdeveloped country, however, people are prone to becoming emotional and are easily swayed by collective sentiment. Oftentimes, emotional outbursts precede rational thinking or reasonable behaviors. Consequently, people become impetuous, and honor codes are frequently ignored, as they are regarded as something far less important than sharing emotions and accomplishing political goals by collective actions.

In an underdeveloped country, people’s primary concern is their own country, rather than the world. Therefore, their daily news reports are about domestic issues, rather than international news. People in an underdeveloped country do not care about global issues or their countries’ relationships with other countries. In an advanced country, however, people always care about other countries and ultimately, the world. As a result, they have global perspectives, while the vision of the people of an underdeveloped country is myopic and parochial. Accordingly, advanced countries are generous, whereas underdeveloped ones are not.

South Korea has already experienced the above-mentioned traits of a fledgling, tyrannical country during the military dictatorship in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We are now living in the 21st century, and South Korea has changed accordingly. It would be very weird, therefore, if the above-stated characteristics of an underdeveloped, totalitarian country still fit today’s South Korea, a much-admired advanced country marked by sheer democracy, a thriving economy and cutting-edge technology.

If some of the above characteristics still linger in our country by any chance, we should strive to overcome and put an end to them. Then, we can surely become a truly democratic, advanced country.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at -- Ed.