Modernization Theory and Uncritical Histories: A Review of South Korea’s Rise


Modernization theory advances a simple model of progressive, linear development. All nations and political systems follow a particular trajectory of growth (from traditional to modern, backwards to developed) if the conditions are right. Similar to the Marxist materialist conception of history, both theories see history moving along in “stages.” The difference is that modernization theorists search for the social foundations of “progress” whereas Marxists are wont to see everything as a reflection of the “economic base.” Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, modernization theory has long ceased to be the leading paradigm for understanding development. Yet its influence – as well as that of Marxist historical materialism – continues to this day. The allure of a simple, linear model is apparently too enticing. This is understandable: we all want to simplify the complexities of our social and political world. But what are the trade-offs?

Linear is precisely the word to describe how authors Uk Heo and Terence Roehrig, scholars of Korea and Korean development, have portrayed the effect of economic development on South Korea’s international relations and foreign policies. In South Korea’s Rise: Economic Development, Power, and Foreign Relations, Heo and Roehrig claim to have found a surprising gap in the literature on economic change and development: no one, according to the authors, has theorized how such changes affect a country’s foreign policy. Building upon existing literature in political science and sociology, the authors present a theory of economic development on foreign policy. The authors describe the theory as such:

Economic development can influence a country’s foreign policy behavior in a number of way because as a nation develops its economy, changes in domestic politics occur and citizens expect more from the government. Economic development often leads to the transition to democracy, which occurs through a number of channels, including better education, industrialization, and a growing middle class. Democratization brings in elite changes. The new elites may interpret national interests differently and make policy changes, such as shifting the focus in foreign policy, and changing relations with other states may follow, reflecting the new assessment of national interests. Thus, the transformation of political elites and type of government often leads to changes in a country’s foreign policy and international relations. (p. 10)

While methodologists and scholars keen to promote the “scientific” side of social science may take issue with Hoe and Roehrig’s theory-building efforts and case selection, let us bracket such critiques and focus instead on what is problematic with this particular theory of development in the South Korean context: the empirics do not strongly support the theory. This is not to say that the authors’ theory has no predictive value; it does. But the oversimplifications or imperfect explanations beg the question: if our social and political world proceeds along an often non-linear and complex trajectory should not our theories reflect as much? Or, more bluntly: ought we avoid overtly or implicitly deterministic theories?

The book is neatly organized into 11 chapters. Aside from the introduction, conclusion, and theoretical chapters, each addresses the way that economic development has transformed South Korea’s foreign policies and international relations. Any one chapter could be critiqued with the above reservations in mind, but one especially problematic chapter is that which covers the evolution of U.S.-South Korea relations (Ch. 4), entitled “South Korea and the United States: From Dependency to Partnership.”

The narrative is simple: Seoul was once cash-strapped and aid-dependent, but economic development has transformed the long-time U.S.-South Korea alliance into a relatively “normal” relationship, one where South Korea is able and willing to chart a course based on its own national interests and not that of another’s (like the Washington’s). “As ROK power has grown,” the authors write, “so too have its willingness and capabilities to pursue its own interests, even if not in agreement with Washington’s.” (p. 61) They cite, favorably, research by Sunhyuk Kim and Wonhyuk Lim who find that “a combination of South Korean economic development over time, the rise of a new generation in South Korean politics, and changing inter-Korean relations help explain a Seoul that has become more fundamentally independent” (p. 63).

There is some truth in this. National power derived from economic strength enables countries to assert and defend their autonomy. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (cited by the authors) has taught us that much. However, not everything – even national power – is derived from the “economic base.” Power asymmetries, especially during the Cold War, were real and often stark, but power asymmetries do not always mean the more powerful actor dictates to the weaker actor what it can and cannot do. Often the roles are reversed.

In her book Race to the Swift, a study of state power and finance, Jung-en Woo (now Meredith Woo-Cumings) finds that shrewd Korean nationalists often exploited South Korea’s geopolitical significance for financial gain. Despite the obvious risks, Korea was able to secure generous aid and financing from USAID and American banks by playing various U.S. agencies (Department of Defense, USAID, State Department) off of one another. Vulnerability was leverage as a strength, putting Korea on more equal footing in its relationship with the U.S. This dynamic cannot be explained using Heo and Roehrig’s theory.

Woo-Cumings took issue with theories which bore too little resemblance to the real world, writing: “[C]ognitive dissonance is more often suffered by social scientists with their theoretical sclerosis than by the politics they purport to explain. It was once said that Syngman Rhee could play poker with two deuces and bluff his way to victory—an ‘Oriental bargainer,’ and ‘master of evasion,’ according to John Foster Dulles.” (p. 44) Of course, Rhee grossly misused much of the aid he received, but that is not the point. If Rhee, the postwar autocrat of a war-torn and financially ruined South Korea, was able to pursue an agenda at odds with Seoul’s ostensibly more powerful ally, then perhaps we ought to reconsider what it means to be independent.

Of course, if one focuses merely on security and involvement in international affairs, then Heo and Roehrig’s theory makes some sense. But that is certainly too limited an understanding of foreign policy, bilateral relations, or the assessment of national interests (all key variables of the authors’ model). In fact, readers might be discomfited by the way the authors discuss Korea’s involvement in the U.S. “war on terror” and global affairs more generally, as if cooperation with the U.S. in its foreign affairs constitutes a normal ROK-U.S. relationship.

Furthermore, the idea, suggested by the authors, that anti-American attitudes are the consequence of a new national identity in the age of “strength and prosperity” ignores the fact that large-scale anti-Americanism was in many ways the consequence of the May 1980 crackdown on pro-democracy protests by the Chun Doo-hwan government – something which many Koreans felt was enabled by the U.S. This had less to do with economics than it did politics and Korea’s social movement. It is plausible to assert that economic or political changes will affect one’s national identity, but this relationship is almost certainly more complicated than the way the authors understand it: “National pride rises as the nation develops its economy.” (p. 25)

Heo and Roehrig’s overarching narrative is, like their theory, nice and neat; linear understandings of political, economic, and social development forego much of the messiness and disarray that actually defines history. Compared to other recent publications on South Korea’s development, like Jin-kyung Lee’s Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea, Heo and Roehrig’s work comes across as a conservative, uncritical history of Korean development. Above all else, this book shows that modernization theory — Marxism for conservatives — lives on.

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