South Korean Democracy: Crisis Coming?

South Korean democracy is a paradox. Unlike many other young democracies in Asia and other parts of the world, it is characterized by relative stability, a working judiciary and, with a few striking exceptions, respect for human rights and civil liberties.

Korean governments have become responsive and accountable to the public. Moreover, the idea of a more inclusive, redistributive welfare state and the imperative of mitigating socioeconomic inequality have become mainstream as is evidenced in the expansion of old social protection schemes as well as the introduction of new ones since the 1990s.

For Western observers who live in the ailing economies of the European Union or in an increasingly polarized and often paralyzed political system like the US democracy, South Korea appears to be an admirable combination of economic prosperity, political freedom and democratic stability.

At the same time, however, there is a growing sentiment among the Korean public that something is wrong with their democracy. The public discourse is gaining strength which holds that representative democracy is in crisis. The individual aspects of this ‘crisis’ include a declining trust of Korean citizens in political elites, political parties, and the parliament.

In addition, anecdotic evidence seems to point to a slow but significant erosion of civil liberties, a troubling decline of the freedom of expression, and the revival of anti-communist, anti-progressive politics.

Finally, the alleged interference by the nation’s National Intelligence Service in the 2012 presidential poll appears to expose the fragility of Korean democracy and the lingering shadow of Korea’s authoritarian traditions. Some even argue that these individual aspects accumulate into a broader and more general pattern of erosion of democracy in South Korea.

Comparing the virtues and perils of Korean style democracy, it is fair to argue that there is little evidence for an erosion of previous achievements in democratization. Rather, South Korean democracy seems to have matured to where it is almost certain that democracy will survive come hell or high water.

However, there are still areas in which democratization and liberalization need to make more progress, and the challenges of deepening of democracy in order to achieve a ‘better’ democratic system will remain on the political agenda in the coming years.

There is growing evidence that freedom of expression has deteriorated under successive conservative governments since 2008, manifesting itself in extensive internet censorship, declining press freedom and consistent self-censorship on the part of the media.

Consequently, in the 2014 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders, Korea ranked 57th worldwide, 18 ranks lower than in the 2007 report. On a positive note, however, Korea is still the second highest ranked country in terms of press freedom in Asia after Taiwan.

A second issue is that the transition to democratic rule did not lead to the abolition of the notorious National Security Law, which critics argue is not only associated with restrictions on freedom of expression but on related rights to association and travel as well.

According to South Korean government statistics, the number of indictments actually increased from about 100 cases in 1987 to more than 600 in 1997, before it went down to about 50 cases in 2007. Since then, however, indictments have been on the rise again and the NSL has not only been used to prosecute persons allegedly threatening South Korea’s national security but to limit the public debate on North Korea as well. Renewed anti-communist tendencies are manifesting themselves in the application of the National Security Law against Korean citizens, foreigners and leftist political parties such as the United Progressive Party.

Thirdly, due to the ‘hyper-presidential government’, the current conservative government can govern without major challenges from the ailing opposition. However, this weakens effective accountability of the executive branch of government, and contributes to the rigid logic of winner-takes-all mentality.

Moreover, majoritarian government does not necessarily translate into effective governance. While in theory presidents could govern without major challenges from the national assembly or the opposition, most actually drew heavy criticism for non-delivery on campaign promises, staff appointments, corruption, ineffective government policies and leadership failure.

Certainly, the current Park Geun-hye government that came to power against a background of political apathy and disillusionment with the established parties is no exception, as its handling of the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 indicates.

Fourthly, several surveys and opinion polls indicate a persistent gap between the perceptions of Korean citizens and the democratic system, an incongruence between the institutional and political cultures, and low trust and considerable dissatisfaction of the citizenry with the actual working of the democratic system. For example, according to a recent publication by Korean scholar Shin Doh Chull, 99 percent of Koreans prefer to live in a democracy, but only 66 percent believe that democracy is always preferable to any other form of government and just 41 percent are willing to protect the democratic order from any future political crisis.

Even more troubling, only one in eight Koreans is a fully informed and firmly committed defender of democracy-in-practice. Data from the Asian Barometer Survey indicate that public support for democracy has weakened since the mid-1990s, levels of satisfaction with democracy in practice are lower than in most other Asian democracies, and public trust in representative institutions of democracy such as political parties and parliament has eroded sharply.

Korean and foreign scholars tend to agree that one of the reasons for the ailing trust in democratic institutions and the rising levels of dissatisfaction is the protracted under-institutionalization of political parties. In fact, the party system is unstable and political parties have shallow social roots. Party organizations are weak with very few dues-paying members and parties are organized around a small number of powerful individuals.

Last but not least, there are growing concerns about the ability of democratically elected authorities and institutions to successfully manage existing conflicts in society resulting from lasting legacies of regional confrontation and increasing socioeconomic inequality. Moreover, there is growing evidence for a new cleavage in South Korean society, a generational divide between more liberal and post-material South Koreans in their 20s and 30s and older, more conservative generations. In this regard, the 2012 election demonstrated the failure of political parties to bridge traditional differences between the Honam and Yongnam regions, the growing importance of the generational gap and a rising concern about deepening socio-economic cleavages in the Korean society.

Quo Vadis Korean Democracy?

Viewed from a comparative perspective, democracy is doing relatively well. Certainly, there are democratic weaknesses. Korean democracy, similar to the so-called mature democracies of the West, faces many challenges, including latent threats to freedom of the press, the age-old tension between freedom and security, problems of deepening social inequality and inter-generational conflict, and a growth of public political discontent.

However, the basic democratic institutions and practices of democracy enjoy a high degree of stability. While it may be true that the return to conservative government in 2008 ushered in a new period of less participatory government with decreasing respect for the views of dissidents and minorities, the danger for Korean democracy is not a return of authoritarianism but stalled consolidation and a lack of deepening of the quality of democracy.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that in the first 25 years of its existence, Korean democracy has exhibited an astonishing ability for self-renewal. Also it needs to be emphasized that the current dominance of the conservative camp and the weakness of the opposition is not primarily the result of government oppression but due to weakness and disorganization of the oppositional parties that have failed to present clear political alternatives to the government, and are not able to rally grass root support.

In this regard, the current “crisis of progressive politics”, as The Hankyoreh, South Korea’s leading ‘non-mainstream newspaper noted in September 2013, is a result of the progressive parties’ repeated failures to confront factions with backward-looking views and allegiance to the clearly autocratic regime in Pyongyang and its anti-democratic, anti-pluralist and anti-individualist ideology.

While South Korea is not the only democratic constitutional state that applies legal limits to political freedom in order to protect democracy and the republic against anti-democratic parties which programmatically and actually condemn the democratic constitutional state (think about the German conception of “militant democracy”), the efficiency of the democracy protection is not primarily dependent on such laws but depends on a vital “civic culture” that is anchored on civic virtues and a general consensus on the fundamental values and rules ought to set narrow boundaries for extremist movements’ attempts to gain influence.

Moreover, as the example of Germany’s post-World War II experience with “militant democracy” demonstrates, there must be a great restraint in the use of such legal instruments. However, as Samuel Huntington, one of the influential political scientists of the 20th Century, used to say: it is important for a country to worry about daunting challenges it faces, because only then will it make the changes necessary to belie the gloomy predictions.

Adapted from an analysis by the East Asia Foundation of Korea. Aurel Croissant is professor at the Institute of Political Science at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, Germany. He serves as co-editor of the journal Democratization (with Jeffrey Haynes) at Taylor & Francis.