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Published: Tue, 06/02/2009 - 07:06 Updated: Wed, 07/01/2015 - 11:02

South Korea is redefining the rules of democracy by rejecting hard economic and military might and adopting aesthetic and humanist principles, including universal human rights in Asia

Satya Sivaraman Gwangju South Korea  

At a solemn function on May 18, in the city of Gwangju, 300 kms from Seoul, Burmese dissident Min Ko Naing was awarded South Korea's highest human rights prize for 2009.

Currently serving a 65-year sentence for opposing his country's repressive military regime, Min Ko Naing, the best known Burmese pro-democracy leader after Aung San Suu Kyi, could not attend and was represented by one of his fellow student activists. "Through the award, we see we are not alone in our fight against the military regime in Burma and my colleagues will be much strengthened by this gesture," said Aung Myo Myint, of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABSFU), an organisation Min Ko Naing had founded way back in 1988.

While the award, welcomed by Burmese activists around the world, was a clear recognition of Min Ko Naing's heroic achievements, it was also another step towards establishing South Korea itself as a beacon of democratic rights in Asia. Tucked in between big powers like China and Japan and facing off bitter rival North Korea, the South Koreans for long were seen as another political pygmy in the pockets of the US in Asia.

This perception is changing thanks to South Korea's rise as one of Asia's most vibrant democracies, its growing cultural hegemony in the region and post-Cold War global transformations making it what analysts are calling a 'soft regional power'. The term 'soft' is meant to show that its power does not come from 'hard' military or economic might but due to the country's good image, democratisation of domestic politics, export of ideas, assertion of humanism and peace, and popularity among the people in the region.

The Gwangju human rights prize, for example, is one such South Korean initiative to make the country's modern day struggles for democracy well known throughout Asia and win goodwill in the region. Administered by the non-profit 'May 18 Memorial Foundation', the prize includes a gold medal, a certificate of achievement and Korean Won 50,000,000.

"It is a privilege for us to select Min Ko Naing for this prize as he represents the spirit of the Gwangju uprising in the extremely repressive Burmese context," said Chanho Kim, Director of the May 18 Foundation.

The prize has been given every year since 1994 in memory of an armed uprising in 1980 by ordinary citizens of Gwangju, a beautiful city in the western part of South Korea, against the then military dictator, Chun Doo-Hwan. Several hundred people died in the military crackdown, an event that many South Koreans believe inspired the country's entire pro-democracy movement.

"The Gwangju uprising and the brutal crackdown changed the course of modern Korean history by robbing the then military rulers of all credibility and making them the object of public anger," says Jung-Kwan Cho, professor of political science at the Chonnam National University in Gwangju.

Despite details of the bloody incident being officially hushed up throughout east and south-east Asia, Gwangju became a byword among democracy activists for popular revolt against the region's repressive regimes.

 By 1988, the Korean people were victorious and finally forced the military to give way to an elected civilian government, leading to a flowering of democratic initiatives in a wide range of areas from labour and human rights to art and culture.  The democratisation process combined with the country's formidable reputation as an economic powerhouse has lent South Korea much greater credibility and influence in the region than what it used to have during its authoritarian past. So much so, many analysts see South Korea as the stabilising factor in an otherwise dangerous region where the US and Japan have traditionally faced off against China and North Korea.

"South Korea is now on the threshold of a new role as a balancer of security in the region due to its unique capacity now to dampen and smoothen problems before they escalate," said Paul Bracken, professor of political science at Yale University, in a paper presented at a recent conference in the South Korean city of Busan: ' Towards a new Asian order and solidarity'. According to him this is because South Korea today poses little threat to any of the other countries in the region and it is often easier for a smaller power to work for peace and stability than for larger powers that have much higher stakes.

Contributing to South Korea's role in recent years as a moderating force in the region are significant changes in the geopolitical equations of Northeast Asia, historically a region of great power rivalry, military build-up and deep distrust between countries.

Firstly, the introduction of the so-called 'sunshine' policy of cooperation and friendship with North Korea in the early 2000s by the Kim Dae Jung administration was a bold step helping defuse the biggest source of tension in South Korea's neighborhood. Since the break up of Korea into the communist north and capitalist south nearly 60 years ago, the two countries have been bitter enemies and constantly prepared for all out war with each other.

Secondly, the distancing over the past decade or more of South Korea from the US and its willingness to criticise the policies of its former mentor has given it new credibility with China and North Korea, which always treated it in the past as a 'US stooge' in the region. Though South Korea still maintains good relations with the US and has even sent troops to Iraq, growing anti-American sentiments amidst its population and the quest for greater national sovereignty have led it to assert more independent policies. Let us not forget the strong and vibrant anti-imperialist Leftist students' movement in South Korea which ushered in remarkable changes in the power structure and civil society in the recent past.

" The US government is unhappy about South Korea emerging as a mediator in northeast Asia but I don't think the US has the capacity to solve these problems on its own. There is a sore need for a honest broker in this region and South Korea is the best candidate," says Kim Bo-Geun, General Secretary of the Hankyoreh Foundation for Reunification and Culture.

But of all factors propelling South Korea to prominence on the regional stage, the most interesting is its growing clout as an exporter of culture and entertainment, a phenomenon dubbed in Korean as hallyu - which means wave. In the past several years, South Korean television dramas, movies and songs have gone from being little known to being immensely popular in not just east and southeast Asia, but all the way in the US and Mexico.

Even in Japan, where everything Korean has traditionally been looked down upon, Korean pop or 'K-Pop' has captivated an entire generation of young people. South Korea's pop culture, accounted for US$1.87 billion in revenues in 2007 from film and TV programme exports, merchandise sales and tourism related to hallyu, according to the Trade Research Institute, a government think tank.

"More than money, cultural export is winning the hearts and minds of people across national boundaries," says Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, an expert on media and popular culture from the Bangkok-based Chulalangkorn University. According to her, all this goodwill makes South Korea the perfect country to promote peace, not just on the Korean peninsula but all of Asia.

South Korea is redefining the rules of democracy by rejecting hard economic and military might and adopting aesthetic and humanist principles, including universal human rights in Asia Satya Sivaraman Gwangju South Korea

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This story is from print issue of HardNews