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.