South Korea

PR Political Rights 33 40
CL Civil Liberties 50 60
Last Year's Score & Status
83 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

South Korea’s democratic system features regular rotations of power and robust political pluralism, with the largest parties representing conservative and liberal views. Civil liberties are generally respected, though the country struggles with minority rights and social integration. Legal bans on pro–North Korean activity affect legitimate political expression, and members of the press can face pressure from the government over their coverage of or commentary on inter-Korean relations. Corruption is also a persistent problem, with scandals implicating successive governments and executives from the country’s largest companies in recent years.

header2 Key Developments in 2020

  • The COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea featured a series of spikes in March, August, and November, with case counts continuing to rise toward the end of the year. However, strict preventative measures and contact tracing were comparatively successful in curbing infections overall. As of late December there had been roughly 64,000 confirmed cases and nearly 1,000 deaths.
  • Legislative elections were held on schedule in April, resulting in a victory for the governing liberal Democratic Party (DP). Special safety measures helped to ensure a high voter turnout and prevent a major resurgence of infections.
  • In November, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae attempted to suspend Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl after a series of clashes over Choo’s attempts to intervene in cases. Her actions were heavily criticized for undermining the independence of the prosecutor’s office. Yoon’s suspension was eventually blocked by the courts, and Choo resigned at the end of the year.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The 1988 constitution vests executive power in a directly elected president, who is limited to a single five-year term. Executive elections in South Korea are largely free and fair. Moon Jae-in of the DP, also known as the Minjoo Party, won a 2017 snap presidential election following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye. Moon took 41 percent of the vote, followed by Hong Jun-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) with 24 percent and Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party with 21 percent. About 77 percent of registered voters turned out for the election.

While voters were not unduly pressured by electoral authorities, Kim Kyoung-soo, the governor of South Kyŏngsang Province, collaborated with blogger Kim Dong-won to manipulate the dissemination of 80,000 news articles, so that social media platforms would effectively portray then-candidate Moon more positively. Governor Kim was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for the scheme in January 2019, and the sentence was upheld on appeal in November 2020; Kim would be forced to leave office if he lost a final appeal to the Supreme Court, which was pending at year’s end. His coconspirator was given a three-year prison sentence in 2019, which was upheld on appeal in February 2020.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 300 members serving four-year terms, with 253 elected in single-member constituencies and 47 through national party lists. In the April 2020 legislative elections, the DP won a total of 180 seats, while the United Future Party—formed in early 2020 through a merger of the LKP and other conservative parties and later renamed the People Power Party—won 103. Smaller parties and independents captured the remainder. Election turnout was expected to drop due to the pandemic, but special measures including staggered voting schedules and social-distancing protocols were implemented to increase the safety of voters, leading to a turnout of 66.2 percent, the highest in 28 years.

Allegations of voter disenfranchisement, election fraud, and Chinese interference surfaced after the elections but were dismissed for lack of evidence. Pandemic-related shutdowns of embassies and consulates around the world prevented more than 87,000 citizens living overseas from voting.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3.003 4.004

Elections are managed by the National Election Commission, an independent nine-member body appointed for six-year terms. Three members are chosen by the president, three by the National Assembly, and three by the Supreme Court. While elections are generally considered free and fair, National Assembly constituencies have historically been affected by malapportionment, giving outsized voting power to thinly populated rural areas. A revised map adopted for the 2016 elections mitigated the problem, in keeping with a 2014 Constitutional Court ruling.

In December 2019, the National Assembly passed an election reform bill that changed the formula for allocation of the 47 proportional seats, allowing the legislature to better reflect the national vote and giving smaller parties a better chance of winning seats. The legislation took effect in time for the April 2020 legislative elections.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3.003 4.004

Political pluralism is robust, with multiple parties competing for power, though party structures and coalitions are very fluid. In addition to the two main parties, the liberal DP and the conservative People Power Party, several smaller groups are represented in the National Assembly, as are a handful of unaffiliated members.

The National Security Law bans pro–North Korean activities, and in one case—that of the United Progressive Party in 2014—the Constitutional Court legally dissolved a political party for violations of the ban.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4.004 4.004

There have been multiple transfers of power between rival conservative and liberal parties since the early 1990s, and the orderly election and inauguration of President Moon in 2017 reinforced this democratic pattern.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 3.003 4.004

Family-controlled business empires known as chaebol dominate the country’s economy and have amassed significant political influence, which has historically enabled them to protect their interests despite calls for reform. Corruption scandals involving chaebol bribery have affected almost all of South Korea’s former presidents. President Moon came to power promising to reform these large firms, but instead he came to rely on the chaebol to bolster the country’s domestic supply chains as it grappled with the continued economic consequences of a trade war with Japan and COVID-19.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) has been implicated in a series of scandals in recent years, including allegations that it sought to influence the 2012 presidential election and later conducted illegal surveillance targeting President Park’s opponents. In December 2020, the legislature passed a reform bill aimed at restricting the agency’s involvement in domestic politics and its ability to investigate espionage cases. However, Human Rights Watch argued that the revisions were too vague and would “perpetuate the risk of abuse” by the agency.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3.003 4.004

Although the country’s few citizens of non-Korean ethnicity enjoy full political rights under the law, they rarely win political representation. Residents who are not ethnic Koreans face extreme difficulties obtaining citizenship, which is based on parentage. North Korean defectors are eligible for citizenship, and in the 2020 elections, Thae Yong-ho became the first to win a constituency seat in the National Assembly; another defector, Ji Seong-ho, won a seat through proportional representation.

Women enjoy legal equality but remain underrepresented in politics, holding 19 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and six seats in President Moon’s cabinet. A group of women lawmakers introduced a reform bill in 2019 that would reserve half of the legislature’s seats for women and require gender parity in parties’ candidate lists in future races. However, the bill made no progress in 2020. Following the April elections, Kim Sang-hee became the first woman to serve as vice speaker of the National Assembly.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4.004 4.004

Elected officials generally determine and implement state policy without undue interference from unelected entities and interests.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3.003 4.004

Despite government anticorruption efforts, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion persist in politics, business, and everyday life. The Kim Young-ran Act, or Improper Solicitation and Graft Act, which took effect in 2016, establishes stiff punishments for those convicted of accepting bribes and applies to government officials as well as their spouses, journalists, and educators. The act was revised in September 2020 to temporarily raise the ceiling on gifts allowed for those in public service as one way to help support struggling industries during the pandemic.

Also during 2020, the courts continued to adjudicate cases related to the convictions of former president Park and coconspirator Choi Seo-won for bribery, revealing state secrets, abuse of power, violation of election laws, and illegal receipt of funds from a state agency. In July, Park was given a reduced 20-year sentence, and the Supreme Court in June ordered Choi to serve 18 years in prison with a fine of 20 billion won ($16.9 million). In October, Park’s former chief of staff, Kim Ki-choon, was given a one-year prison term for abusing his power and illegally pressuring firms to provide money to support conservative groups. Samsung vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong was handed a five-year prison sentence in 2017 after he directed donations to Choi’s group; although he was released in 2018 after the Seoul High Court cut his sentence in half and suspended the remainder, the Supreme Court in 2019 ordered a retrial, which was ongoing at the end of 2020.

Former president Lee Myung-bak (2008–13) was convicted of bribery and embezzlement in 2018 and received a 15-year prison sentence, but an appellate court in February 2020 raised the term to 17 years, which the Supreme Court confirmed in October. Former deputy spy chief Lee Jong-myeong, who served at the NIS under President Lee, was found guilty in September 2020 of illegally spending taxpayers’ money and sentenced to eight months in jail.

In 2019 the National Assembly passed legislation to create the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials, which would focus on corruption allegations against public officials, legislators, prosecutors, judges, and the president. It would also have the power to unilaterally indict police officers, prosecutors, and judges. The agency became official in July 2020 but faced delays in the appointment of its leadership due to political disagreements in the National Assembly.

In April 2020, a aide to President Moon was arrested for allegedly accepting bribes and leaking information about a state inspection of a troubled hedge fund during his time in the Blue House. In October, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae ordered Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl to recuse himself from the matter, claiming he had failed to conduct fair, thorough investigations into opposition politicians and prosecutors implicated in the case. The unusual intervention prompted the opposition to claim that Choo was abusing her power, and formed part of the broader clash between Choo and Yoon that eventually led to Choo’s resignation in December.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2.002 4.004

President Moon pledged to fight corruption and improve transparency in the wake of his predecessor’s impeachment, but his administration has suffered from a series of scandals involving the transparency of funding decisions, official statistics, and other matters in recent years.

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s alleged political meddling in criminal cases during 2020 included a February order to the ministry to stop disclosing information to the National Assembly about indictments against President Moon’s allies in connection with a scandal over meddling in a mayoral election.

Overall, however, the government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with openness and transparency, promoting nationwide testing and contact tracing to contain the virus. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KCDA) published health guidelines and daily updates on the number of cases, tests performed, and deaths from COVID-19. Spending decisions were also made in a transparent manner, as the National Assembly approved supplementary budgets to curb outbreaks.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 3.003 4.004

The news media are generally free and competitive, reporting aggressively on government policies and allegations of official and corporate wrongdoing. However, a defamation law authorizes sentences of up to seven years in prison or fines of up to 50 million won ($42,000), encouraging a certain degree of self-censorship, and journalists have faced political interference from managers and government officials.

In July 2020, journalist Woo Jong-chang was sentenced to eight months in prison on defamation charges for a 2018 YouTube video about an alleged conspiracy related to former president Park’s impeachment. In January 2020, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that lawmaker Lee Jung-hyun had violated the Broadcast Act by trying to influence media coverage of the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014, when he was a presidential aide. He was the first person to be convicted under that law. Lee was ordered to pay a fine of 10 million won ($8,300) but was able to keep his seat in the National Assembly.

News coverage or commentary that is deemed to favor North Korea can be censored and lead to prosecution under the National Security Law, and access to North Korean media is banned. In addition, the Korea Communications Standards Commission evaluates online content found by its staff or referred to it by other government agencies, and blocks or deletes such content according to vaguely defined standards, though most such material is reportedly related to prostitution or pornography, gambling, promotion of illegitimate food and medicine, and other criminal activity.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4.004 4.004

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected in practice. Until recently, the military conscription system made no allowances for conscientious objection, and hundreds of men—nearly all of them Jehovah’s Witnesses—were imprisoned each year for refusing military service. However, a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling found that the government had to provide alternative forms of service for conscientious objectors, and in June 2020 the military began accepting applications. The first group of 63 conscientious objectors began their service in October.

Coronavirus cluster cases that were traced back to churches during 2020 led to restrictions on gatherings of large groups of worshippers, with all in-person church activities barred in the greater Seoul area in August and again in December. The Shincheonji Church of Jesus was linked to more than 5,000 cases associated with the country’s initial outbreak and was sued by the city of Daegu in June for ignoring quarantine efforts. Its leader, Lee Man-hee, was arrested and indicted in August. The church was also sued by the mayor of Seoul, and members have reportedly faced discrimination and online harassment.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3.003 4.004

Academic freedom is mostly unrestricted, though the National Security Law limits statements supporting the North Korean regime and restricts access to material related to North Korea. Separately, the 2016 anticorruption law subjects teachers and administrators to the same tight restrictions as public officials. Certain portrayals of sensitive historical issues—such as imperial Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women—can be subject to government censorship or prosecution under the country’s defamation laws and other statutes.

In January 2020, four teachers in Incheon were arrested for possessing a “variety of banned North Korean texts” and distributing materials in an internal study group. In June, North Korean defector and author Lee Ju-seong was sentenced to six months in jail, suspended for three years, for a book alleging North Korean involvement in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising against military rule in South Korea. In May, President Moon had promised support for an independent fact-finding committee to look into the uprising, also known as the May 18 Democratization Movement, and pushed for recognition of the event in the constitution. A law passed in December prescribed fines and up to five years in prison for dissemination of distorted information about the uprising.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4.004 4.004

Private discussion is typically free and open, and the government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy. However, the government also maintains a robust surveillance apparatus.

An antiterrorism law grants the NIS expansive authority to monitor private communications. The NIS, police, prosecutors, and investigative agencies can also access metadata without a warrant; this includes internet users’ national identification numbers, postal addresses, and telephone numbers. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, mobile phone and credit card data were used for contact tracing, raising privacy concerns amid reports that companies had shared data about people who attended antigovernment rallies with health authorities. Information that was publicly released about confirmed coronavirus cases sometimes enabled identification and harassment of infected people. In response to these problems, national health officials and the Personal Information Protection Commission took additional measures to prevent private information from being disclosed.

The National Security Law restricts speech that is considered pro–North Korean. However, the law has not been strictly enforced since a new inter-Korean diplomatic process began in 2018; concerns about potential constraints on free expression shifted to those who opposed or could complicate rapprochement with the North, including North Korean defectors and human rights activists. As of 2020 the Constitutional Court was reviewing the constitutionality of the law’s Article 7, which punishes those who praise North Korea’s regime or produce, carry, or distribute pro–North Korean materials, but it has repeatedly been upheld in past cases.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4.004 4.004

The government generally respects freedom of assembly, which is protected under the constitution. However, several legal provisions conflict with this guarantee, sometimes creating tension between the police and protesters over the application of the law. Large public gatherings were banned starting in February 2020 due to coronavirus concerns.

Despite the health-related restrictions, antigovernment rallies were held in the capital, including large demonstrations in mid-August. Around National Foundation Day in October, the government banned more than 100 planned demonstrations, many of which were also meant to protest President Moon’s policies. Numerous police barricades were set up along streets and squares in central Seoul, along with some 90 checkpoints to prevent vehicles from bringing in protesters. Critics said these measures were excessive and politically motivated.

LGBT+ pride events have sometimes been disrupted by counterprotesters. Due to the COVID-19 containment measures in 2020, the annual Seoul Queer Culture Festival was held online.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3.003 4.004

Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active and generally operate freely, though they face political pressure when criticizing the government or other powerful interests. Many South Korean NGOs rely on government grants, despite their independent agendas.

NGOs focusing on human rights in North Korea and on support for defectors have come under intense scrutiny and pressure during the tenure of President Moon, who made improving inter-Korean relations a hallmark of his administration. The North Korea Human Rights Foundation (NKHRF), which was established by a 2016 law and provided financial support to human rights activists and organizations, has been largely inactive since funding was cut by 93 percent in 2018. The Moon administration ordered a crackdown in July 2020 on human rights activists who send balloons carrying leaflets across the demilitarized zone, after the North Korean authorities denounced the practice; the government revoked the licenses of two organizations engaged in such activities. In December, lawmakers adopted legislation that banned the transfer of information, goods, and money to North Korea without government approval. Nearly 30 human rights groups filed a constitutional complaint to challenge the law.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4.004 4.004

Workers have the right to form independent unions and engage in strikes and collective bargaining. The country’s independent labor unions advocate for workers’ interests in practice, organizing high-profile strikes and demonstrations that sometimes lead to arrests. However, labor unions have diminished in strength, as more South Koreans work on a temporary or part-time basis than in the past.

While South Korea joined the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1991, as of 2020 it had yet to ratify four of the ILO’s eight fundamental conventions on workers’ rights. Workplaces with fewer than 30 employees are not obligated to establish or operate collective agreements, and major employers are known to engage in antiunion activity.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 3.003 4.004

The chief justice and justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. The appointments are made based on recommendations from the chief justice, who is assisted by an expert advisory committee. The chief justice is also responsible for appointments to the lower courts, with the consent of the other Supreme Court justices. The president, the National Assembly, and the chief justice each nominate three members of the Constitutional Court. The judiciary is generally considered to be independent, but senior judges have also been ensnared in corruption scandals in recent years.

Yang Sung-tae, who served as chief justice from 2011 to 2017, was on trial during 2020 after being accused in 2019 of manipulating high-profile cases in 47 instances to serve the interests of the administration and major businesses. Trials for several other judges who had been indicted for misconduct in 2019 proceeded during 2020, and at least three were found not guilty.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3.003 4.004

Judges render verdicts in all cases. While there is no trial by jury, an advisory jury system has been in place since 2008, and judges largely respect juries’ decisions. Ordinary legal proceedings are generally considered fair, but the courts have sometimes been accused of denying due process and impartiality to defendants in National Security Law cases.

Choo Mi-ae, former chair of the DP, was appointed as justice minister in January 2020 after her predecessor was forced out over ethics violations. Over the subsequent months, Choo repeatedly clashed with Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl over the management of cases, especially those involving former or current officials close to President Moon. In November, Choo called for Yoon to be suspended and face disciplinary measures for actions that she said violated ethical codes of conduct. Prosecutors in Seoul and Busan issued statements of protest, calling the suspension a violation of prosecutorial independence. A deputy justice minister resigned in apparent protest, while President Moon endorsed Yoon’s suspension. Yoon successfully challenged his suspension in court, and he was reinstated in December, after which Choo resigned. A revised law was passed in September 2020 to prevent justice ministers from abusing their power over prosecutors with respect to disciplinary measures, but it was not set to take effect until January 2021.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3.003 4.004

Reports of abuse by guards in South Korea’s prisons are infrequent, and prison conditions generally meet international standards. Violent crime is relatively rare, but the country is still technically at war with North Korea, resulting in a heavy military presence in some areas and the constant threat of renewed combat. Minor incidents of violence near the de facto border are not uncommon. In September 2020, a South Korean official allegedly tried to defect to the North but was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers. The South Korean defense ministry reportedly had knowledge of the situation as it was happening but did not take action to intervene or inform other parts of the government. South Korean and international authorities called for further investigations into the event.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3.003 4.004

South Korea lacks a comprehensive antidiscrimination law, though a bill was under consideration in late 2020. Members of the country’s small population of non-Korean ethnicity encounter legal and societal discrimination, especially in the workforce. Children of foreign-born residents suffer from systemic exclusion from the education and medical systems. Some foreigners who were not covered by the national health insurance plan were denied access to COVID-19-related benefits and programs during 2020.

There are approximately 33,700 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. While the government aims to integrate this group into South Korean society, defectors can face months of detention and questioning upon arrival. Some defectors have also reported abuse in custody and societal discrimination.

North Korean defectors do not need to apply for asylum using the same process as other applicants. Asylum seekers from other countries are far more likely to have their claims rejected. Of 5,896 such asylum seekers who applied between January and August 2020, only 164 had been accepted as of November. In April, the Justice Ministry said it would allow thousands of applicants to reapply if they were improperly disqualified due to falsified reports of interviews conducted in Arabic by the Korea Immigration Service between 2015 and 2018.

Women generally enjoy legal equality but face significant social and employment discrimination. Women earned 32.5 percent less income than men in 2019, compared with an average of 13 percent among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and the gap was expected to worsen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sexual harassment of women in the workplace is common, and a number of political figures were accused in 2020 as part of the #MeToo movement against such abuses. For example, Seoul mayor Park Won-soon died by suicide in July after a former assistant accused him of sexual assault and harassment; Busan mayor Oh Keo-don stepped down for similar reasons in April. Former Justice Ministry official Ahn Tae-geun was convicted of abuse of power in 2019 and sentenced to two years in prison for sexually harassing public prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon, but his sentence was overturned in September 2020.

Same-sex relations are not restricted among civilians, and existing human rights legislation bars discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, this legislation does not offer specific penalties, and transgender people are not explicitly protected. In January 2020, a transgender soldier, Byun Hee-soo, was forcibly discharged following her gender confirmation surgery. Byun filed a lawsuit in August, arguing that the constitution does not allow discrimination due to “personal identity”; the case was ongoing at year’s end. Soldiers who engage in same-sex sexual activity are subject to a “disgraceful conduct” provision of the Military Criminal Act and face two-year prison terms.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4.004 4.004

Movement within South Korea and travel abroad are unrestricted, except for travel to North Korea, which requires government approval.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, residents were urged to self-quarantine and limit travel. Travelers arriving from abroad were required to undergo a 14-day quarantine, and visitors from “high-risk” countries had to submit a negative COVID-19 test result to enter; foreigners who did not abide by the rules faced deportation, and citizens who defied the rules faced fines and arrest. These measures were generally seen as legitimate and proportional to the public health threat.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3.003 4.004

South Korea fully recognizes property rights and has a well-developed body of laws governing the establishment of commercial enterprises. However, the economy remains dominated by chaebol that have colluded with political figures to pursue their own interests, and property ownership for individuals has become especially difficult due to soaring housing prices.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3.003 4.004

Personal social freedoms are largely respected, and women and men generally have equal rights in divorce and custody matters, though same-sex marriage is not legal in South Korea. Abortion was considered a crime punishable with imprisonment except in cases of rape, incest, threats to the pregnant person’s health, or designated disorders or diseases. However, the abortion ban was overturned by the Constitutional Court in 2019, and in October 2020 the government announced that it would alter sections of the law to allow abortions up to 14 weeks into a pregnancy, and in some circumstances up to 24 weeks, though it would not fully decriminalize the procedure. The proposal had not yet been implemented at year’s end.

Domestic violence is common, despite laws designed to prevent such crimes. Legislation that would ban men with records of domestic violence or sexual crimes against children from inviting foreign women to immigrate for the purposes of marriage took effect in October 2020. In April, lawmakers adopted a set of bills that strengthened punishments for online sex crimes and raised the legal age of sexual consent from 13 to 16.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3.003 4.004

Protections against exploitative working conditions are enforced by the authorities. Nevertheless, foreign migrant workers remain vulnerable to illegal debt bondage and forced labor, including forced prostitution. In October 2020, a coalition of migrant workers’ groups denounced the employment permit system and legislation that makes it difficult for individuals to change their place of employment, which can expose workers to abuses such as reduced pay and long hours without adequate rest periods.

In October 2020, civic, religious, and health groups called for action to address the deaths of couriers from overwork, exacerbated by an increase in online shopping during the pandemic; couriers typically lack the labor protections of full-time employees.

Women in South Korea are vulnerable to recruitment by international marriage brokers and sex traffickers. Although the government actively prosecutes human trafficking cases, those convicted often receive light punishments.

On South Korea

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  • Global Freedom Score

    83 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    67 100 partly free