The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on Monday brought the largest gathering of world leaders in years, as 500 heads of state and foreign dignitaries gathered in London to pay tribute to the beloved Queen. Immediately after her death, the new king, Charles III, began leading the nation’s mourning, introducing himself to a public unknown to any other monarch.
In his speeches, King Charles vowed to devote his life to service as his mother had done. His speeches were marked by respect for tradition and the memory of his mother. At one point, the word “sovereignty” appeared in the speeches, which struck me as different from contemporary notions of sovereignty.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “sovereignty” means: a) supreme power, especially over a body; b) freedom from external control; and c) controlling influence. In the post-colonial era, which began at the end of World War II, most people associate sovereignty with “freedom from heteronomy” in the form of national independence. However, Charles referred to the traditional idea of sovereignty as “supreme power, especially over a body”.
In monarchies, supreme power resides in the hands of the monarch, who rules over loyal subjects. In democratic constitutional monarchies like the United Kingdom, the monarch is a symbolic leader and political power rests with democratically elected officials. So Charles is a figurehead who governs but does not govern. Tradition has him as the sovereign, the ‘supreme power’, but that is up to the British people, who express their will through elections.
The United Kingdom evolved into a democratic constitutional monarchy over hundreds of years. The Magna Carta of 1215 began the lengthy process of limiting the monarch’s powers. The late Queen Elizabeth earned respect for not voicing her political views or getting involved in politics.
In South Korea, the concept of sovereignty is vague. The nation was established as a republic, meaning that “supreme power” rests in the hands of the people, who adopt laws and structures to govern themselves. The reality was the opposite, as authoritarian rulers from Syngman Rhee to Chun Doo-hwan held or attempted to hold “supreme power” over the people. People, of course, saw the gulf between the nation’s founding ideals and political reality. In critical moments like 1960, 1980 and 1987, attempts to exercise power over the people provoked widespread public outrage. The 1987 blast was enough to bring about lasting change, putting power in the hands of the people for the first time in Korean history.
Since 1987, the country has experienced smooth transitions of power and deepened democracy and respect for human rights. The country has done so well that it ranks 16th in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Democracy Index, two places above the UK and 10 above the US, which now rates ‘erroneous’ at 26th become democracy.”
South Korea has succeeded at democracy because the people have remained alert and willing to control leaders who seek to strip them of sovereignty. But there are danger signs that come not from power-hungry leaders, but from a faceless bureaucracy. The COVID-19 pandemic that broke out worldwide in early 2020 required extraordinary measures everywhere. South Korea’s much-vaunted response to the pandemic came with a competent bureaucracy that moved quickly and undoubtedly saved many lives.
But success emboldened the bureaucracy, causing it to redouble controversial decisions. The quarantine period, for example, lasted almost two years, much longer than in other advanced countries. A relaxation of the system in 2021 led to further controversy, as people vaccinated abroad were not eligible for quarantine fluctuations. This was eventually changed after a group of foreign ambassadors complained. This year, authorities have been requiring polymerase chain reaction testing for much longer than other advanced countries. The intractability of bureaucracy caused undue hardship for visitors and returning residents, as well as for the travel and hospitality sectors of the economy.
Of course, the power of bureaucracy in South Korea is not new. It helped dictators exert control, but also played a key role in promoting economic growth and social development. The problem with the bureaucracy is not its record or its competence, but the simple fact that it is not elected.
Allowing an unelected bureaucracy to govern shifts sovereignty away from the people, endangering democracy. To prevent the bureaucracy from gaining further power, South Korean citizens must start asking questions and demanding accountability.
Robert J Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes about Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at [email protected] — ed.
From Korea Herald ([email protected])