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Democracy is the biggest challenge for South Korea in 2015

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In Brief

It is not hard to list the domestic and international challenges for South Korea for 2015. There are many.

At the end of 2014, South Korea faces economic slowdown, an ageing population, worsening socio-economic inequality, rising youth unemployment, mounting household debt and a real-estate market slump.


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The list of diplomatic tasks includes sluggish or worsening relations with Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, soured relationships with Abe’s Japan and coping with the dilemmas of China–US dynamics.

But the biggest challenge that now faces South Korea will be ensuring the soundness and strength of its democracy. Since Park Geun-hye’s government took office in February 2013, soundness of political democracy requires special attention. South Korea’s liberal democracy is under threat.

A series of political scandals have cast doubt over the democratic credentials of Park’s Saenuri Party and Park’s own presidency. The National Intelligence Service’s alleged interference in the 2012 presidential election in favour of Park and the enforced resignation of the Prosecutor General leading the investigation into the claims; the arrest of the United Progressive Party (UPP) MP Lee Seok-ki; antagonism towards the labour unions; the legal suit against Sankei Shimbun journalist Tatsuya Kato and the ‘memogate scandal’ have all hurt Park’s public support.

It is no secret in South Korea that conservative governments have used security concerns for domestic political purposes. Some suspect Park’s administration of abusing the security agenda to camouflage its poor political performance. From the beginning of her tenure, numerous nominees for key government positions — including the prime minister — have not passed the parliamentary hearings process or have had to quit once in office because of sex and political scandals.

Failure to rescue more than 300 passengers including about 250 high school students in the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster has also discredited the government’s, and the president’s, capacity to manage national emergencies. But President Park’s biggest failing has been her lack of will and inability to communicate with constituents and even with her supporters.

There is wide suspicion that whenever the president faces serious political challenges, announcements of espionage activities and subversion plots by pro-North Korea groups follow. Such claims are often found to be baseless by the courts. But they make citizens feel more secure and thus increase support for Park.

The South Korean constitutional court’s recent order to dissolve the UPP is not free from such suspicion. The tiny UPP — 5 out of 300 National Assembly seats — was disbanded on the grounds that it ‘aimed at using violent means to overthrow [South Korea’s] free democratic system’ and was ‘ultimately establishing a North Korean style system’. The court also ordered that the party’s five lawmakers be stripped of their parliamentary seats. As the first verdict of its kind in South Korea, it may stir up intensive political conflict because progressive South Koreans think that the evidence for the order is not persuasive. They also argue that the order is not fair — that is, it is politically motivated in favour of the president and conservative party.

Institutionally, the nine members of the court — three each nominated by the president, the National Assembly, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — struggle to be seen as independent from the clout of the president. Normally, any ruling by the Constitutional Court takes more than two years. The UPP dissolution order only took slightly more than a year. Pundits suggest that the court case was used by Park’s administration to distract from the memogate scandal, which dragged Park’s approval rating down to its lowest level since inauguration.

The waning of press freedom is the deepest concern for South Korean democracy. In 2011, under the previous Lee Myong-bak administration, Freedom House downgraded South Korea from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ citing increased online censorship and claiming that 160 journalists had been penalised for criticising the government. The Park administration has increased pressure on critical media, by increasing the number of active lawsuits against journalists. Spearheaded by the case of Sankei journalist Tatsuya Kato in August, the Park administration boldly sued the Hankyoreh Newspaper, the Sisa Journal, the Chosun Daily, and the Segye Daily for the alleged defamation of the president and high government officials. A Korean political analyst criticises that the ‘government is sending a message to the press not to write negative reports about the government’. Borrowing a Korean observer’s words, ‘Park is taking a page from her dictator father’s playbook’.

The long-term cost of undermining democracy is the loss of presidential and governmental credibility. President Park changing her governing style to enhance transparency and democracy seems to be the solution, but is unlikely. Park and her chief aides emphasise that 2015 will be a golden year for reform: the administration will not face any elections at the national level until 2016.

But a president with ideologically divided citizens cannot break through barriers to properly handle the controversial but imminent national challenges facing South Korea.

Kim Keeseok is a professor at the Department of Political Science, Kangwon National University.

2 responses to “Democracy is the biggest challenge for South Korea in 2015”

  1. This is exactly what I was thinking as well! South Korean democracy is questionable, did the courts find any evidence of foul play by NIS over the election scheme? It seems that’s been thrown under the rug.

    • Yes,it was. The court paradoxically concluded that the NIS intervened in the politics (guilty) but did not in the election (not guilty) to help the president maintain her political legitimacy. In other words, according to the judge, it is possible to neatly divide politics and elections in Korea.

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