Richard Nisley

A Tale of Two Koreas
History - World Released - Jan 19, 2014

Satellite images tell the story. At night, North Korea is shrouded in total darkness, except for a pinpoint of light emanating from the capital city of Pyongyang. South Korea, on the other hand, is lit up like a Christmas tree. Below the 38th parallel, lights blaze as brightly as in Southern California.

Indeed, life in South Korea these days is very much like life in Southern California, with shopping malls, McDonalds, Starbucks, expressways and rush-hour traffic. In North Korea, outside Pyongyang (which as a city is about as real as a Hollywood backlot) people live a stone-age existence--without shoes, adequate food, and zero healthcare. Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, the socialist government in Pyongyang exploits the North Korean population down to the smallest crumb.

What makes the contrast between North and South Korea so astonishing is this--as late as 1960, both sides were roughly equal economically. Both sides were run by ruthless dictators, and both sides were propped up by outside political forces--North Korea by China and Russia, and South Korea by the United States. In the intervening years, something remarkable happened to South Korea that turned the country around and made it prosperous and democratic. What was it?

Unlike the government in North Korea, which was guided by inflexible socialist ideology, the South Korean government had no such constraints. When the South Korean dictator decided he wanted to modernize his country, he appealed to Korean business interests. The business community agreed to help their country modernize, but they wanted a say in how the government was run. To get what he wanted, the dictator granted them a smidgen of power. The business community created jobs, built factories, exported heavily, then demanded and got more say in government policies. One day the dictator woke up and discovered his country was now a republic and that he was out of a job. While he awaited trial for a host of political crimes, a democratically-elected president assumed executive leadership. That was in 1987. Today, South Korea enjoys the second-highest living standard in Asia, the fourth largest economy, and free elections.

What’s particularly interesting is that the United States did nothing to bring this about, other than to import South Korean goods. It was Capitalism that brought about the change. Capitalism created a middle class that pressured the government to open up the political system. It nurtured an independent civil society that helped consolidate liberal democracy.


What is called democracy in the West is really “liberal” democracy, a political system marked not only by free elections but also the rule of law, the separation of powers and basic human rights, including property, free speech and religious tolerance. In the West, this tradition of liberty and law developed over centuries, long before democracy took hold. It was produced by a series of forces--the separation of church and state, the Reformation, capitalism and the development of an independent middle class. In fact, capitalism--i.e. a free market economy--fosters a free society. The two go together, as Adam Smith points out in “The Wealth of Nations.” You can’t have one without the other.

Looking at the many non-Western transitions to liberal democracy over the last four decades one can see that the countries that have moved furthest toward democracy followed a version of the European pattern: capitalism and the rule of law first, and then democracy.

South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia were all governed for decades by military juntas or single-party systems. These regimes liberalized the economy, the legal system, and rights of worship and travel, and then, decades later, held free elections. They achieved, perhaps accidentally, the two essential attributes of good government that James Madison outlined in the Federalist Papers. First, a government must be able to control the governed, then it can be able to control itself. Order plus liberty. These two forces will, in the long run, produce legitimate government, prosperity, and liberal democracy. Another example is Chile. General Augusto Pinochet was not trying to create democracy--far from it. But in opening up the economy that is what he ended up doing anyway. A free economy produced a free and democratic society. Today, the elected leader of Chile is a woman. The President of South Korea is a woman as well.

East Asia is still rife with corruption, nepotism, and voter fraud--but so were most Western democracies, even fifty years ago. Elections in Taiwan today are not perfect but they are probably more free and fair than those in the American south in the 1950s, or in Chicago in the 1960s. Large conglomerates have improper influence in South Korean politics today, but so did their equivalents in Europe and the United States a century ago. Remember the “robber barons” of the late-19th-century Gilded Age and the influence they had on the United States government?

One cannot judge new democracies that most Western countries would have flunked even 30 years ago. East Asia today is a mixture of liberalism, oligarchy, democracy, capitalism, and corruption--much like the West in, say, 1900. But most of East Asia’s countries are considerably more liberal and democratic than the vast majority of other non-Western countries.

The world is not perfect--far from it--but it is becoming more democratic. In 1900 not a single country had what we would today consider a democracy: a government created by elections in which adult citizens vote. Today 119 do, comprising 62 percent of all countries in the world. What was once a peculiar practice of a handful of states around the North Atlantic has become the standard form of government for humankind.

Monarchies are antique; fascism and communism utterly discredited. The night sky over North and South Korea is vivid evidence of how a repressive socialist government can hold a nation down. It is quite literally the difference between darkness and light.

(For more, see “The Future of Freedom” by Fareed Zakaria, the main source material for this piece).

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