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Fragility of South Korea democracy exposed

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In Brief

The arrest and resignation of two prominent public figures in the wake of sex and political scandal are exposing the fragility of democracy in South Korea.

South Korean Prosecutor General Chae Dong-wook was forced to resign in September ostensibly because of a private scandal involving a child born out of an adulterous relationship.


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There is widespread suspicion, however, that political forces were responsible for the departure of Mr Chae.

The Prosecutor General had been investigating alleged interference by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in the 2012 presidential election in favour of the successful candidate Park Geun-hye.

Many believe that the Blue House, the office of South Korea’s President, had pressured Mr Chae to step down in order to guard the Park administration’s reputation and protect the NIS from reform. Public support for reform of the NIS is growing as a result of the organisation’s alleged actions and the subsequent investigation.

Since its formation in 1961 by President Park’s father, the authoritarian president Park Chung-hee, the NIS has been a powerful and conservative force in the nation’s politics resistant to external accountability and regulation.

A second controversy relating to the NIS also erupted when the left-wing lawmaker Lee Seok-ki was arrested for an alleged pro-North Korean conspiracy. The arrest resulted from information collected by the NIS over the past three years.

The evidence was said to implicate Mr Lee in a conspiracy to incite rebellion against the South Korean government in the case of a North Korean invasion.

While little sympathy is held for Mr Lee’s extreme views, his sudden arrest aroused suspicions that the NIS were trying to deflect attention from the prosecutor’s investigation and the subsequent calls for reform.

The NIS scandal holds implications for South Korea’s civil and parliamentary institutions. The 2012 claims against the NIS alleged that the organisation had systematically posted malicious online comments against the opposition party to support Park’s candidacy.

This, if proved true, would be a clear breach of laws prohibiting public agencies from involvement in politics. However, the initial investigation by the South Korean police was flawed. When the charge first emerged police were reluctant to investigate and stated that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations.

The election proceeded and Park Geun-hye won the race, with a 3.6 per cent margin ahead of the opposition.

In January 2013, however, the police reversed the findings of their earlier investigation. Facing growing evidence against them, the NIS then justified its interference in the electoral process as ‘routine intelligence work’ against North Korea.

Further, the ruling Saenuri Party appeared to obstruct the new investigation by delaying a parliamentary investigation, boycotting related parliamentary hearings and arguing that they should be closed to the public.

In response to the scandal, President Park asked instead for ‘self-reform’ of the NIS.

The Park Geun-hye government came to power against a background of political apathy and disillusionment with the established parties. She argued for a new of government on the basis of so-called ‘trust politics’.

However, the government’s lukewarm response to the NIS scandal has raised public resentment: more than 80 civil organisations issued political statements condemning the government and the ruling party and in August large scale protests took place.

A recent poll suggests that many South Koreans think that the NIS conspired with the ruling party (55 per cent) and that ‘self-reform’ of the NIS is ‘impossible’ (62 per cent). On the basis of such polling, it seems that political apathy and distrust remain strong in South Korea.

More fundamentally, the NIS scandal demonstrates the fragility of democratic institutions and values in South Korea. Park’s political strength is, in part, derived from the legacy of her father’s authoritarian rule, and so the current government has a particular responsibility to be seen to remove the lingering shadow of South Korea’s authoritarian tradition.

Two important steps in respect of the NIS crisis would indicate serious willingness to reform. First, the upcoming trials must be shown to be free of political interference.

The judicial process must also be effective in determining the truth relating to the NIS scandals and individuals should be punished accordingly. Second, the ruling party should stand above party politics and cooperate with the opposition to reform the NIS.

The recent political turmoil involving the resignation of Mr Chae and the arrest of Mr Lee should not be allowed to distract from the urgent task of reforming the NIS — and further consolidating South Korea’s democracy. President Park needs to not only remove the political stain left on her election victory but also to ensure future democratic integrity.

The recent events involving South Korea’s NIS are a test case to show whether or not the Park Geun-hye government has the capacity to reignite the electorate’s belief in South Korean democracy — and to truly deliver its promise of ‘trust politics’.

Suwon Barb Lee and Dr Emma Campbell are researchers based at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article was first published here on

4 responses to “Fragility of South Korea democracy exposed”

  1. to Anonymus:

    The article rightly points out the fragility of our democracy. Your claims have not been verified and the NIS is criticized for its organized (illegal) involvement during the last presidential elections, not for the claims you point (and those claims are also wrong). South Korea’s success depends on its status as a liberal democracy as much as its economic miracle. Your false accusations do harm rather than good to South Korea’s ongoing quest for a more democratic society.

    • South Korean newspapers printed the summit minutes on June 25, 2013. They show that President Roh told Kim Jong-Il he shared the same views as Kim, who suggested the NLL be changed into a joint fishing area or a peace zone. Roh also stated this would be controversial in the South.

    • Rep. Lee Seok-ki is on trial now in South Korea. He was taped saying he would side with N Korea in a time of war and blow up key infrastructure including communication a rail lines. His defense is that he was taped illegally and it was all a joke. .

  2. Honestly, I almost forgot that just a few decades back South Korea was under military rule. Your articles on this website have served to remind me of this fact. As a watcher of everything in this axis (and maybe in comparison to North Korea), I have come to take smooth sail of democracy for granted in South Korea. I think the country has done very well for itself on the democratic front, watching from West Africa as I do. South Korea has my goodwill.


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