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We describe the place of classical liberalism in Korea’s past and present. Korea first glimpsed classical liberalism in the mid-18th century, and liberalism experienced a resurgence there in the late 20th century. But Korea’s history has been mostly bereft of liberalism, even after the country became democratic and economically productive. Its history began with rigid social stratification undergirded by the Confucian ideology; that was followed by failed attempts to reform and a period of colonization by Japan. Korea was liberated from Japan’s control at the end of WWII, but divided into North and South. A liberal democracy was formed in South Korea in the face of communist threats, followed by a period of authoritarian rule, then a transition to democracy, and then finally some awakening of classical liberalism. Classical liberal economists still constitute a small minority of the Korean economic profession, but they have been active in educating the public and have achieved a degree of success.
Podcast related to this article: Young Back Choi on Liberalism in Korea (EJW Audio, January 2020).