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Where's South Korea's democracy headed?

Reading Time: 6 mins

In Brief

On 13 April South Koreans will elect the 300 members of the country's unicameral National Assembly. Since making the switch from military dictatorship to democracy in 1987 and announcing itself on the world stage at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, South Korea has undergone a remarkable political transformation.


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It joined the ranks of the OECD in 1996 and acted as a global agenda setter when it was the first non-G7 country to host and chair the G20 Summit in 2010. But, almost 30 years since democratisation, how are the country’s democratic institutions faring now?

South Korea is unique among economically advanced liberal democracies in that it  restricts the presidency to a single five-year term. Yet, Aidan Foster-Carter points out, the president surprisingly ‘still [keeps] a lot of power’. It is the president ‘who gets to appoint the premier and other ministers — or dismiss them’. In theory the president is positioned to act as the effective executive and get things done, while ‘the Cabinet has little real power’. But the president’s ability to wield this strong executive power is kept in check by the limits of a single five-year term and the inability to ‘dissolve the National Assembly, which runs on a separate four-yearly cycle’.

Under the current political climate, this system of checks and balances has had unfortunate, unintended consequences.

In our lead this week, Ben Ascione observes that, ‘South Korean presidents are forced to focus on legacy issues from day one. Rather than having time to build consensus and listen to the views of the opposition and a cross-section of the community they are elected to represent, the race to pass legislation, institute new programs and leave their mark on history has become more a sprint, than a marathon for the long distance’.

Within this context, the South Korean government under President Park ‘lacks a fundamental willingness to communicate with the public and listen to political critiques … Park appears to be “Following in the footsteps of her dictator father”’, says Moon Chungshik. ‘Under the Lee Myung-bak government in 2011 Freedom House changed South Korea’s press freedom status (both online and offline) from “Free” into “Partly Free”’. Under Park’s presidency, ‘[t]hese indexes have continued to decline’.

‘The ongoing history textbook controversy illustrates this concern’, Moon explains. In October 2015, the Education Ministry declared that it was going to adopt state-written history textbooks for secondary education, a policy of social indoctrination that is typical of autocracies. The government reckons that the current history textbooks, published by eight private publishing houses, are left-leaning and may distort students’ views. Concerns about forcing ‘correct history’ upon school children are not, of course, confined to South Korea — Japan controversially and ironically has a similar inclination. Prominent scholars in major universities including Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University, as well as overseas, have declared that they’ll boycott state-censored history-writing.

‘Park’s lack of political patience’, says Kim Kee-seok, is also ‘correlated with declining civilian rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and demonstration’. This has been especially noticeable in ‘excessive use of force by riot police’ at large anti-government protests over issues such as public opposition to a labour reform bill late last year. Park moved in 2013 to have a rival fringe left-wing political party, the United Progressive Party, disbanded by the Constitutional Court. The Court’s compliance with her a year on marks the first time that a political party has been outlawed since the 1950s, writes Geoffrey Fattig. This move was justified through appeal to the National Security Law. Enacted in 1948 as a political tool to punish those suspected of harbouring left-wing or communist tendencies or sympathies with North Korea, the law is a relic of the Cold War and has been criticised as an instrument to prosecute journalists today.

In March 2016, the government passed an anti-terror bill. The bill has been doing the rounds since 2001 after September 11 but was never passed due to disagreements over what monitoring powers the National Intelligence Service (NIS) should be permitted. The bill’s vague definition of terrorism has created fears that it will be used not just to target ‘legitimate threats to the state’ but also ‘to intimidate anyone who runs afoul of the government’.

Given the NIS’s history of detaining, torturing and killing opponents under military rule in the 1960s–1980s, the fear has grounding. The NIS is still accused of regularly acting outside its mandate with one of its directors sentenced to three years in prison for illicit online campaigning activities in favour of Park Geun-hye against her Minjoo Party challenger Moon Jae-in in the 2012 presidential election, although he may evade prosecution after the ordering of a re-trial of his case. The opposition set new filibustering records in protest of the bills for over a week as 38 liberal lawmakers took turns speaking for a total of more than 193 hours in what is said to be a world-record. Yet the government still forced it through at Park’s behest citing the threat posed by North Korea.

President Park’s penchant for dictating rather than consensus-building has also been on display in the infighting between the Blue House and the anti-Park factions within the ruling Saenuri Party as she seeks to take back control of the party in the National Assembly. As Ascione notes, ‘Park loyalists have been given the nod for nominations at the expense of her adversaries’ in the candidate nomination process for the election. ‘Some Saenuri incumbents … were even forced out of the party to run as independents’.

There is discussion of moving toward a more US-style presidential system, synchronising presidential and National Assembly elections, and allowing the president to serve two consecutive four-year terms rather than the current one five-year term. While this would not fix all of South Korea’s political problems, the opportunity for a second term and the extra time this would allow could give presidents more time to engage with the electorate, and to listen to the views of the opposition, when formulating and implementing policy.

South Korea has well and truly made the shift from military dictatorship to democracy, so much so that the international community may have taken its status as a healthy democracy for granted. ‘Almost 30 years on, the legitimacy of elections, respected by both winners and losers of the process, has  been solidly entrenched,’ Ascione reckons. Yet the performance of South Korea’s democratic institutions between elections should give pause for reflection. Even if the Saenuri defeats the opposition Minjoo and Kookmin parties in the upcoming poll, the real loser of the elections may be the South Korean people who look like they must endure (at least until the next president takes office in February 2018) both continued state abuse of democratic processes and political gridlock.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

2 responses to “Where’s South Korea’s democracy headed?”

  1. Thanks for an informative summary and analysis of some important elements of the S Korean system of government, which I did not know. Does the Constitution of the country allow for its electoral system to be modified without undue obstacles? While changes like the ones suggested might be beneficial, can/will the powers that be engage in serious discussions about implementing these? Does the electorate have to get involved via a referendum of some kind?

    Here in the USA some changes have been made in the voting rules of the Senate. But the institution and the House of Representatives are still embroiled in gridlock much of the time.

    In Japan Abe ‘reinterpreted’ the Constitution to alter defense and security policies rather than face a referendum because he was certain the population would not go along with what he wanted to do. While this seemed more ‘efficient,’ it has raised lots of concerns in the country.

    Ie, changes in these systems of government are difficult to achieve at best.

  2. The United Progressive Party was disbanded because three of its members were convicted for acting as agents of North Korea. Lee Seok-ki one of its members, a member of the South Korean Legislature was sentenced to 12 years in prison for planning to attack vital South Korean infrastructure if a war was to break out with the North. So if treason and planning sabotage and murder are not reasons to disband a political party please tell me what are your standards. Lee was also convicted and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison in 2003 for espionage for North Korea. Shorty after that President Roh Moo-hyun gave him a special pardon and amnesty.

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