High capacity, low resilience: The ‘developmental’ state and military–bureaucratic authoritarianism in South Korea

Date01 January 2018
Published date01 January 2018
International Political Science Review
2018, Vol. 39(1) 67 –82
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0192512117692643
High capacity, low resilience:
The ‘developmental’ state
and military–bureaucratic
authoritarianism in South Korea
Olli Hellmann
University of Sussex, UK
This article argues that high levels of state capacity are not a sufficient condition for consolidating autocratic
rule. Rather, whether non-democratic rulers can harness the infrastructural power of the state to implement
strategies of regime stabilization depends on three crucial factors: the state’s social embedding; the international
context; and the extent of elite cohesion. The paper develops this argument through a case study of the
military–bureaucratic regime in South Korea (1961–1987), which – despite a high-capacity ‘developmental’
state at its disposal – failed to maintain high levels of resilience.
Authoritarianism, state capacity, elections, military regime, South Korea
Generally speaking, state capacity – that is, the state’s ability to implement official policy goals – is
a function of both the state’s infrastructural power and the state’s external embedding, such as the
social (e.g. Migdal, 1988) or international context (e.g. Weiss, 2005). Existing studies that explore
the effect of state capacity on the resilience of authoritarian regimes (e.g. Andersen et al., 2014;
Seeberg, 2014; Slater and Fenner, 2011) tend to focus primarily on the infrastructural component
of state capacity, thus ignoring the ‘embeddedness’ part of the capacity function.
However, as this paper will show, incorporating the state’s external embedding is crucial if we
want to further our understanding of the capacity–resilience link. Specifically, the paper will argue
that a regime’s ability to use the state as an instrument for consolidating non-democratic rule
depends, first, on a number of societal factors – in particular, society’s ability to organize collective
action. Second, regimes can be inhibited in their use of the state as a non-democratic ‘weapon’ by
international factors, such as global economic crises and external power relations. Finally, the
Corresponding author:
Olli Hellmann, Department of Politics, Freeman Building, Brighton BN1 9QE, UK.
Email: o.hellmann@sussex.ac.uk
692643IPS0010.1177/0192512117692643International Political Science ReviewHellmann
68 International Political Science Review 39(1)
paper will demonstrate that, when contextual factors undercut the infrastructural power of the state,
this can provoke factional divisions within the regime, which, in turn, can make it even more dif-
ficult to harness the state’s infrastructural power for regime-stabilizing purposes.
The paper will make these arguments primarily through a case study of the military-bureau-
cratic regime that ruled South Korea (Korea hereafter) between 1961 and 1987. The case of Korea
can be highly instructive to identify the contextual factors that may affect a regime’s ability to
employ the state towards political ends: even though the regime had available a state that closely
resembled the ideal type of what is the high-capacity state par excellence, the ‘developmental’
state, resilience dropped significantly in the final stages of the regime’s lifespan.1 That is to say, we
can safely assume that the decline in regime resilience was mainly due, not to failures in the infra-
structural setup of the state, but to changes in the state’s contextual embedding.
The state as a regime tool: The importance of the contextual
When seeking to consolidate their power, autocratic regimes can rely on a number of strategies.
Broadly speaking, they can aim to generate legitimation among the population, quell demands for
political change through repressive means, and ‘buy’ the loyalty of potential and actual opponents
through the mechanism of co-optation (Gerschewski, 2013). To implement these strategies, auto-
cratic regimes can rely either on regime organizations (such as political parties) or state organiza-
tions. In other words, when analyzing the strategic repertoire of non-democratic rulers, we need to
distinguish between regime capacity on the one hand and state capacity on the other (see Hanson
in this special issue for a more in-depth discussion). The subsequent analysis will focus primarily
on the latter.
The argument that state capacity, in its different dimensions, helps dictators to implement strate-
gies for regime stabilization has been made by a number of scholars (e.g. Andersen et al., 2014;
Slater and Fenner, 2011). However, what is missing from the relevant literature is an understanding
of the intervening factors that affect the link between state capacity and regime resilience.
Specifically, there is little appreciation of the fact that a state’s ability to implement strategies for
autocratic regime survival depends on the state’s social embedding and the international context.
This section, by borrowing from different literatures, will theorize about some of these factors
before we then proceed to apply the resulting analytical framework to the case of Korea.
Starting with the first regime strategy (legitimation), state capacity is, in theory, most significant
for a regime’s ability to generate ‘specific support’ – in particular, the ability ‘to address popular
demands for socio-economic development’ (Gerschewski, 2013: 20). Since the mid-1990s, a large
body of literature has emerged, providing strong evidence that high-capacity states are more effec-
tive at promoting economic growth than low-capacity states (e.g. Evans, 1995; Kohli, 2004). More
specifically, many of these studies focus on the dimension of bureaucratic quality – that is, the
question of whether the state bureaucracy is organized along classic Weberian principles of meri-
tocracy and procedural objectivity, rather than inter-personal loyalties and obligations (see Hanson
in this special issue). The general argument that emerges is that only bureaucracies of a certain
quality have the capacity to efficiently implement programs of industrialization and other develop-
ment-related policies.
Based on this, we should expect autocratic regimes that control high-quality bureaucracies to be
in a strong position to generate specific support among citizens and hence be more resilient than
regimes that do not command Weberian bureaucracies. However, contrary to these expectations,
Andersen et al. (2014) – in the only systematic test of the relationship between bureaucratic quality
and regime stability – report no significant results. Their explanation centers around the trade-off

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