Time to revitalize the transformative power of democracy

Korean Serenade - Lee Sang-Hwa - The Philippine Star

“Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?” This mind-boggling question lingered in my mind when I departed Myanmar in December 2021. During my tenure as the Korean Ambassador to Myanmar, I witnessed the best and the worst times in Myanmar’s budding democracy. Its transition from a civilian-led government to a state of political turmoil following the military coup on Feb. 1, 2021 was akin to a roller coaster ride.

Reflecting on Myanmar’s arduous journey toward democracy, I learned that though elections and open government are the keystones of democracy, they must be accompanied by a healthy political climate and unity of purpose among the parties concerned. Democracies require constant work and maintenance as there are many perils and pitfalls. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed, “No one is born a good citizen, no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime.”

In recent years, we have seen a concerning retreat of democracy globally. This retreat, as highlighted by Freedom House in 2022, has been marked by alarming trends such as authoritarianism, populism, racism, extremism and polarization. Against this backdrop, US President Joe Biden, calling the defense of democracy “the defining challenge of our time,” convened the inaugural Summit for Democracy in December 2021. The summit aimed to reaffirm our shared belief that democracy offers the best hope for delivering on the issues that matter most to people: strengthening accountable governance, expanding economic opportunities, protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms and enabling lives of dignity.

Korea co-hosted the second Summit for Democracy in March 2023, alongside Costa Rica, the Netherlands, the United States and Zambia. The ministers of the Indo-Pacific region, including the Philippines – the oldest democracy in the ASEAN – adopted the “Seoul Declaration on Challenges and Progress in Addressing Corruption.” Corruption undermines public trust, compromises the integrity of our institutions, exacerbates inequality and impedes progress outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Fighting corruption is also intrinsically related to cutting red tape and improving the ways of doing business.

Encouraged by its contributions at the second Summit, Korea is honored to host the Third Summit for Democracy, which will take place on March 18-20 in Seoul. Participants will delve into topical issues related to democracy under the central theme, “Democracy for Future Generations.” The abundance of elections scheduled worldwide this year underscores the relevance of the wisdom imparted by the American scholar James Freeman Clarke when he said, “A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

The fact that Korea is hosting the Third Summit for Democracy is remarkable. I vividly remember a famous line from The Times editorial on Oct. 1, 1951 which read, “It would be more reasonable to expect to find roses growing on a garbage heap than a healthy democracy rising out of the ruins of Korea.” Indeed, Korea’s own history has proven the transformative power of democracy. Thanks to the resilience of its people and the support of the international community, Korea managed to rise from the devastation of the Korean War and now stands tall and proud as a vibrant democracy with a thriving economy. The latest Democracy Index by The Economist Intelligence Unit affirmed Korea’s status as a “full democracy.”

By empowering people to freely pursue their aspirations, democracy has fostered creativity and innovation across Korean society. In my view, this is the key to the shining success of the Korean Wave, including K-pop and K-drama. It exemplifies the boundless potential that arises from embracing democratic ideals. Thus, Korea’s story can serve as a beacon of hope for countries in democratic transition. At the second Summit for Democracy, President Yoon Suk Yeol stated that “we are fulfilling our duties and role as a ‘facilitator of freedom’ in the world.”

The Third Summit builds upon the successes of its predecessors. Aiming to underscore the crucial role of multi-stakeholder “cohorts” or “champions” of democracy, it will emphasize the need to promote human rights, expand civic space and empower defenders of democracy, including independent journalists. It will also highlight the need for civil societies across diverse sectors to “lock arms” against increasing threats to democracy.

Another perspective that will feature prominently at the Seoul summit will be the intersection of AI and digital technologies with democracy. I recently met Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and CEO of online news website Rappler, who will attend the panel discussion on this topic. She warns that technology can be a double-edged sword, with the potential to either enhance truth and democracy or empower autocracy through algorithmic interventions. Experts will explore the opportunities and challenges posed by advancing AI and digital technologies, thus stressing the critical role of citizen education in safeguarding democracy in the new era of AI. During his recent meeting with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, President Yoon asked Meta to play an active role in monitoring and countering fake news and other malpractices on its platforms. For its part, Korea will host a global AI Safety Summit in May.

As Winston Churchill remarked, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Indeed, despite its shortfalls, democracy remains the most effective system for achieving freedom, peace and prosperity. History has repeatedly demonstrated democracy’s ability to unleash human potential and take on big problems like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis and growing inequality.

On March 3, 2024, the Philippines and Korea commemorated the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations. In his congratulatory letter, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. highlighted that standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight for freedom and democracy during the Korean War marked the inception of our enduring and versatile partnership across various domains. Hence, it is incumbent upon us to further strengthen our shared democratic values. The legacy of the Korean War and the noble sacrifice by more than 7,000 valiant Filipino soldiers should live on.

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Lee Sang-hwa is the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines.

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