Is South Korea’s democracy under threat from within?
Government meddling and restrictions on freedoms threaten to unravel hard-fought democratic gains, critics say.
Seoul, South Korea – Elected lawmakers are barred from parliament; a political party is banned; journalists face courts for “defaming” the president; activists are deported; and state spies meddle in elections.
These events have occurred in ostensibly free-and-liberal South Korea – a nation that has been democratic for three decades, but which some fear is now turning back the clock.
“Korea’s hard-won democratic freedoms are in great danger indeed,” said Steven Kim, a UK-based academic. “Lee Myung-bak’s presidency marked the start of this trend, and it has dramatically worsened under Park Geun-hye.”
South Korea’s road to democracy was long. Activists struggled against dictatorial right-wing administrations that ruled the country from its founding in 1948, a decades-long process darkened by troops massacring civilians and riot police battling student protesters amid tear-gas clouds.
Only when the middle class hit the streets in “people power” protests in 1987 did the regime cave in and permit full democratic elections.
Rolling back democracy
However, since the right-wing Lee (2008-2013) and Park (2013-present) administrations took power, developments indicate some freedoms are being rolled back.
“Lee and Park came to maturity at the height of the success of the dictatorship in the 1970s,” said Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of The Koreans.
“So power is in the hands of a generation that grew up in the shadow of the North Korean threat and accepted the principle that security overrides civil rights.”
Soon after the 2012 presidential election, allegations surfaced that agents of the National Intelligence Service, or NIS, had undertaken a cyber campaign supporting right-wing candidate Park Geun-hye. Park – whose father, General Park Chung-hee, seized power in a coup and ruled South Korea until his assassination in 1979 – won the presidency.
Eventually in September 2014, the head of the NIS in 2012 was found guilty of electoral subterfuge and jailed.
The most strident critic of NIS electoral meddling was a minority hard-left party, the Unified Progressive Party. In August 2013, the scandal-rocked intelligence agency revealed sensational allegations about a firebrand UPP lawmaker, Lee Seok-ki. Lee, the NIS asserted, secretly supported North Korean espionage, and in February 2014 he was jailed for inciting insurrection.
The UPP insisted Lee was framed and comments made during a meeting cited by the NIS calling for sabotage were simply jokes. Lee appealed to the Supreme Court but it failed on January 22 when his sentence was confirmed as nine years.
In November 2013, the government unleashed the Constitutional Court on the UPP itself. In December 2014, it ordered the UPP to be dissolved – the first time a party has been outlawed in South Korea since democratisation – and its lawmakers prevented from taking their parliamentary seats.
They are contesting the latter step in administrative court. At a press conference, ex-UPP lawmakers accused the government of filling the Constitutional Court with right-wing ex-prosecutors, and claimed to be victims of “Korean-style McCarthyism”.
Media under threat
The anti-government satirical troupe Naneun Ggomsuda saw one of its members jailed for spreading false rumours about then-president Lee.
More recently Tatsuya Kato, Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei newspaper, faced trial after the presidential office launched a defamation lawsuit against him for an August 2014 story that cited rumours circulating in South Korean media about the president’s whereabouts on the first day of the deadly sinking of the ferry Sewol last year.
A verdict is expected this spring. Kato, who is banned from leaving South Korea, could face seven years behind bars. Meanwhile, on January 28, a local internet news site, Voice of Seoul, was fined for reporting rumours about the president and her brother.
We've noticed a rise in censorship and a chill from defamation cases and the National Security Law, and self-censorship in the media is flagrant.
On January 10, state prosecutors leveraged the anti-North Korea National Security Law – which Amnesty International said is “used to suppress dissent and arbitrarily detain and prosecute individuals for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association” – to deport Korean-American author Shin Eun-mi for praising Pyongyang during a South Korean lecture tour. Shin said he’s the victim of a conservative witch-hunt.
Subsequently, two left-wing lawmakers have been questioned by the prosecution for allegedly supporting Shim.
These developments have not gone unnoticed by international monitors and NGOs.
In an August 2014 report, International Crisis Group wrote: “Efforts are needed to reform [South Korea’s] intelligence capacities, principally by depoliticising its agencies and ensuring adequate legislative and judicial oversight.”
Regarding the Sankei case, Reporters without Borders noted in September: “It is completely normal for news media to ask questions about the actions of politicians, including the president,” adding: “We call on the authorities to drop the charges.”
Korea ranks 57th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2014 Press Freedom index, having fallen from 44th in 2012. Meanwhile, Freedom House described South Korea’s media and internet as “partly free”.
“We’ve noticed a rise in censorship and a chill from defamation cases and the National Security Law, and self-censorship in the media is flagrant,” said Geoff Cain, research head of the Open Government Partnership’s Korean team. “The government is doing little to address these issues.”
Even the US government has – unusually – weighed in.
“We’re concerned that the National Security Law … limits freedom of expression,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, in response to a question on the Shin case.
The president’s office is not backing down.
Referring to the UPP, a Blue House official told Al Jazeera the action was a “decision of the Constitutional Court”, and, “The Republic of Korea, which is quite uniquely confronting North Korea, cannot condone forces that pay blind obedience to North Korea and reject our democratic polity.”
Regarding the Sankei case, the official declined to comment, citing ongoing legal proceedings.
“The Korean government upholds and protects the freedom of expression in accordance with the constitution of the Republic of Korea. Our constitution, however, does not afford protection to defamation that is based on false information,” said the official, who could not to be named.
Pundits differ on the gravity of the situation.
“I want to see this administration do things differently, but am not overly concerned,” said Oh Young-jin, editor of the Korea Times newspaper, noting that Korean presidents are restricted to a single, five-year term.
“I think the status of Korean democracy is irreversible, we have come so far it’s impossible to go back.”
“South Korean democracy is not under threat but is a work in progress,” added author Breen. “The idea of principles and rights associated with democracy are not well grounded yet – it is still jostling and power politics.”
Kim called for pressure on Seoul. “To arrest this trend, [it] needs international pressure,” he said. “And locally, Korean people should protest more actively and vigorously against these ridiculous policies.”
That is not happening. Although left-wing media have criticised the government’s actions, Korea’s street is not up in arms. A survey of 1,000 citizens by the Joongang Ilbo newspaper found 64 percent supported the UPP’s dissolution.