South Koreans benefit from regular rotations of power and robust political pluralism. 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 journalists can face pressure from the government over their coverage of or commentary on inter-Korean relations. Corruption and misogyny are persistent problems, with scandals implicating successive governments and company executives in recent years.
- Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) won the March presidential election, defeating liberal Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung with the narrowest margin in South Korean history. Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, was term-limited.
- In October, a former Seoul Metro employee was indicted for murdering a female colleague whom he had stalked. That murder led to calls for stronger antistalking punishments and greater protections for women.
- In October, 158 people visiting the Itaewon section of Seoul for Halloween festivities died in a crush. Arrest warrants for three police officers over their performance during the incident were issued in early December, while another two were arrested later that month. A legislative probe into the incident had not begun by year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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. In March 2022, PPP candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, who served as prosecutor general under term-limited Moon Jae-in of the DP, was elected to succeed Moon. Yoon defeated DP candidate Lee Jae-myung with the narrowest margin in South Korean history; Yoon won 48.6 percent while Lee won 47.8 percent.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The unicameral National Assembly has 300 members serving four-year terms, with 253 elected in single-member constituencies and 47 through national party lists. The DP won a majority in the April 2020 legislative elections; after by-elections in June 2022, the DP held 169 seats and PPP 115.
In June 2022, voters participated in local elections, including for 17 metropolitan mayoralties and provincial governorships. The PPP won 12 of those posts. Turnout stood at 50.9 percent, the second-lowest recorded for local polls.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
Elections are managed by the National Election Commission (NEC), an independent nine-member body appointed for six-year terms. The president, National Assembly, and Supreme Court each chooses three members. Elections are generally considered free and fair. While laws have been enacted to address malapportionment, complaints on this issue persist.
In July 2022, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) began investigating the NEC for reportedly using unofficial containers to collect early-voting ballots from COVID-19 patients and quarantined individuals, which prompted vote-rigging concerns.
|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?
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, several smaller groups and independent members hold legislative seats.
The 1948 National Security Law (NSL) bans pro–North Korean activities. In 2014, the Constitutional Court dissolved the United Progressive Party for violating it.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
There have been multiple transfers of power between rival conservative and liberal parties since the early 1990s. The orderly election and inauguration of Moon Jae-in in 2017 after the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, reinforced this pattern, as did Yoon Suk-yeol’s 2022 victory.
|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?
Family-controlled business empires known as chaebol dominate the economy and wield significant political influence, which has historically protected their interests despite calls for reform. Corruption scandals involving chaebol bribery have affected almost all of South Korea’s former presidents. In August 2022, President Yoon pardoned a number of chaebol executives who were involved in bribery scandals during Park Geun-hye’s 2013–17 administration.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) has been implicated in a series of scandals in recent years, including allegations of election tampering. A 2020 reform bill limited the NIS’s mandate to collecting information related to North Korea and overseas interests and prohibited it from conducting domestic surveillance.
In July 2022, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MGEF) was raided over accusations that MGEF officials had assisted the DP in electoral activities ahead of the March polls.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Although citizens of non-Korean ethnicity have enjoyed full political rights, they rarely win political representation. In December 2022, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon suggested that the government would limit voting rights for permanent foreign residents, who can currently vote in some local elections. Residents who are not ethnic Koreans face extreme difficulties obtaining citizenship, which is based on parentage. North Korean defectors are eligible for citizenship; two won National Assembly seats in 2020.
Women enjoy legal equality but remain underrepresented in politics, holding 19 percent of National Assembly seats as of December 2022. Female representation in the cabinet is also low.
In June 2022, Cha Hae-yeong of the DP won a council seat in a district of Seoul, becoming the country’s first openly LGBT+ elected official.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Elected officials generally determine and implement state policy without undue interference from unelected actors.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Despite government anticorruption efforts and robust investigations and prosecutions, practices such as bribery, influence peddling, and extortion persist in politics, business, and everyday life. The 2016 Improper Solicitation and Graft Act establishes stiff punishments for those convicted of accepting bribes and applies to government officials as well as their spouses, journalists, and educators. The Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials investigates corruption allegations against public officials and can unilaterally indict police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Conflict-of-interest legislation for public servants took effect in May 2022.
Officials appointed during the Moon administration came under scrutiny for their conduct during 2022. In August, the BAI began an audit of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission over absenteeism allegations that included chairperson Jeon Hyun-heui, a Moon appointee; Jeon reported she was facing pressure to resign. As of December, the BAI was considering whether to question Hong Jang-pyo, a Moon administration official, over allegations that the previous administration manipulated economic data.
DP aides and officials, including Lee Jae-myung, came under scrutiny over their conduct relating to a land-development project in Seongnam, where Lee served as mayor between 2010 and 2018. Lee was indicted for violating election laws by allegedly disseminating false information over the affair in September 2022. A staff member of a DP-affiliated think tank was arrested over bribery allegations in October, while a Lee ally in the DP was indicted in December. Authorities raided the offices of the think tank in October, searching for evidence that Lee accepted illegal funds related to the land project.
An investigation into speculative land purchases based on insider information via the Korea Land and Housing Corporation ended in March 2022; a total of 4,251 people were referred to prosecutors, 64 were arrested, and 150.7 billion won ($116.3 million) in profits were seized.
In December 2022, Yoon said he would pardon former president Lee Myung-bak, who received a corruption-related prison sentence in 2018 and exhausted his appeals in 2020.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
A 1998 public-disclosure law allows citizens and resident foreigners to request access to the records of public agencies, except those related to national security. Access to some documents has been denied despite lawsuits seeking their disclosure.
While President Yoon has vowed to fight corruption and improve transparency, his administration has also suffered from a series of scandals on matters including nepotism and favoritism.
|Are there free and independent media?
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 prison sentences or fines, encouraging some self-censorship, and journalists have faced political interference from managers and government officials.
The Yoon administration has signaled that media criticism of its activities could result in retaliation. In September 2022, the PPP filed a defamation suit against the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) for publishing a video of President Yoon apparently cursing while speaking to aide after meeting with US president Biden. In November, MBC journalists were denied access to the president’s plane and presidential media briefings were suspended. Also in November, the PPP-controlled Seoul City Council legislated to cut funding for Traffic Broadcasting System (TBS) starting in 2024. TBS radio host Kim Ou-joon had been accused of demonstrating an on-air left-wing bias and breached broadcasting rules during the 2022 electoral period; Kim left TBS in late December.
Access to North Korean media is banned. News coverage or commentary deemed to favor Pyongyang can be censored and lead to prosecution under the NSL. In July 2022, the Unification Ministry published a report recommending a loosening of restrictions.
The Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) evaluates online content and blocks or deletes material according to vaguely defined standards; most of the affected content is reportedly related to illegal sex work, pornography, gambling, promotion of illegitimate food and medicine, or other criminal activity.
In September 2022, prosecutors raided the offices of the country’s broadcasting regulator, the Korea Communications Commission, over concerns that it manipulated the broadcast-renewal process for two television outlets in 2020.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. However, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea stated that the suspension of a mosque construction project in Daegu—still on hold as of December 2022—was due to discrimination and prejudice.
Until recently, the military conscription system did not permit conscientious objection, and hundreds of men were imprisoned each year for refusing military service on religious grounds. A 2018 Constitutional Court ruling found that the government had to provide alternative forms of service for conscientious objectors. The current options for alternative service, which lasts twice as long as active military service, have been criticized as being punitive.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is mostly unrestricted, though the NSL limits statements supporting Pyongyang and restricts access to material related to North Korea. Separately, a 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 defamation laws and other statutes.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Private discussion is typically free and open, and the government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy. However, the government’s capacity for surveillance remains robust. 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.
The NSL restricts speech that is considered pro–North Korean. In September 2022, the Constitutional Court began reviewing the constitutionality of Articles 2 and 7 of the NSL, which define and punish “anti-state” organizations and proscribe the production or possession of material considered rebellious. In June, a UN special rapporteur had recommended abolishing Article 7.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
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.
Bans on large public gatherings fluctuated throughout 2022 due to COVID-19, though many social distancing rules were relaxed beginning in March. Despite these restrictions, union rallies and antigovernment and antimilitary protests were held in 2022.
LGBT+ pride events are held but have sometimes been disrupted by counterprotesters.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active and generally operate freely, despite the risk of political pressure when they criticize the government or other powerful interests. Many South Korean NGOs rely on government grants even as they pursue independent agendas.
In 2020, NGOs were banned from sending balloons carrying leaflets across the Demilitarized Zone. Debate is ongoing on whether to overturn the ban. Such launches still occur; in October 2022, a group of activists claimed they sent several balloons before being intercepted by police.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
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. Many unions held strikes in 2022 in response to inflation and fuel prices.
However, labor unions have diminished in strength as more South Koreans work on a temporary or part-time basis. Workplaces with fewer than 30 employees are not obligated to establish or operate collective agreements, and major employers sometimes engage in antiunion activity.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The chief justice and justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. 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 lower-court appointments, with the consent of the other Supreme Court justices. The president, National Assembly, and chief justice each nominate three members of the Constitutional Court. The judiciary is generally considered to be independent, but senior judges were ensnared in corruption scandals in recent years.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
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 NSL cases.
In April and May 2022, the National Assembly passed amendments to the Prosecutors’ Office Act and the Criminal Procedure Act that would limit prosecutors’ ability to directly conduct investigations. The Justice Ministry and prosecutors petitioned the Constitutional Court in June to void the amendments, while the Yoon administration sought to expand prosecutors’ investigative powers through presidential decrees. The court did not rule by year’s end.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Reports of abuse by prison guards are infrequent. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
Violent crime is relatively rare, but the country remains 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.
Several police officers were arrested or faced warrants over the October 2022 Itaewon disaster, in which 158 people died in a crush. A legislative inquiry had not begun by year’s end.
In December 2022, Moon Jae-in–era national security advisor Suh Hoon was arrested for allegedly mishandling the repatriation of two North Korean fishermen in 2019 and the death of a South Korean fishery official at the hands of North Korean soldiers in 2020.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
South Korea lacks a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. Members of the country’s small non-Korean population face legal and societal discrimination, especially in the workforce. Children of foreign-born residents and single foreign parents are systematically excluded from education and medical systems, though in 2021 the government began granting temporary stay permits and related benefits to children of undocumented migrants who were born in the country.
Approximately 33,900 North Korean defectors have entered South Korea since 1998. While the government aims to socially integrate defectors, they can face months of detention and questioning upon arrival. Some defectors have reported abuse in custody and societal discrimination.
North Korean defectors need not apply for asylum using the same process as other applicants. Those from other countries are far more likely to have their claims rejected or mishandled by immigration officials; the country’s refugee recognition rate has stood below one percent for several years. Afghan evacuees have reported religious discrimination and difficulty finding jobs in their respective fields.
Women generally enjoy legal equality but face significant social and employment discrimination; when compared to men, they enjoy a lower employment rate and suffer a pay gap. Sexual harassment of women, including in the workplace, is common; a number of political figures have been accused as part of the #MeToo movement. Digital sex crimes against women in 2021 increased by 82 percent when compared to 2020 according to the KCSC. Neither “semen terrorism”—the act of spreading semen onto another individual or their property—nor the theft of personal objects for sexual purposes are considered sex crimes.
Nearly 80 percent of stalking victims are women according to civil society. Few measures are taken to stop assailants from repeatedly approaching victims. In October 2022, Jeon Joo-hwan, a former Seoul Metro employee, was indicted for murdering a female colleague whom he had stalked. That murder led to calls for stronger antistalking punishments and greater protections for women.
Same-sex relations are not restricted for the general population, but soldiers are subject to a “disgraceful conduct” provision of the Military Criminal Act (MCA) and typically face two-year prison terms for such activity. But in April 2022, the Supreme Court overturned two men’s MCA convictions; they had engaged in same-sex activity off-duty in a private residence. Existing human rights legislation bars discrimination based on sexual orientation but lacks specific penalties for violations; transgender people are not explicitly protected. In a survey released by Dawoom, an LGBT+ rights NGO, in May 2022, 66.9 percent of transgender respondents said they experienced discrimination in the previous year, 41.5 percent of all respondents considered suicide, and 8.2 percent attempted it.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Internal movement and travel abroad are typically unrestricted. Travel to North Korea requires government approval.
The government maintained some COVID-19-related movement restrictions during 2022, but restrictions for most incoming travelers were lifted as of October.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Property rights are respected. A well-developed body of law governs 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 fluctuating housing prices.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Personal social freedoms are largely respected, and women and men generally have equal rights in divorce and custody matters. Abortion was decriminalized in 2021. Same-sex marriage is not legal in South Korea. Same-sex couples are not allowed to register for health insurance as spouses, with a court ruling denying benefits to a couple in January 2022.
Domestic violence is prevalent despite laws meant to combat such activity; 16.1 percent of women surveyed in 2021 reported violence, emotional abuse, or other coercive behavior by intimate partners. Arrest and prosecution rates for such cases are low, while sexual offenses against women and children carry weak penalties. Foreign-born brides also suffer high rates of domestic violence.
President Yoon vowed to abolish the MGEF during his presidential campaign. The MGEF currently provides services for victims of sexual and domestic abuse, support for single parents, who headed 1.5 million households as of 2020, and other “family-related projects” such as youth counseling.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
While protections against exploitative working conditions are enforced, foreign migrant workers, who number 480,000, remain vulnerable to illegal debt bondage and forced labor, including sex trafficking. Migrant workers’ groups have denounced the employment permit system and legislation that makes it difficult for individuals to change their employment, which can expose workers to abuses. Couriers, some of whom have died from overwork, typically lack the labor protections of full-time employees.
Women in South Korea are vulnerable to recruitment by international marriage brokers and sex traffickers. Many foreign women who have suffered sexual violence face language barriers and are reluctant to come forward due to their employment status. Although the government actively prosecutes human trafficking cases, those convicted often receive light punishments. In its Trafficking in Persons Report 2022, the US State Department noted that authorities initiated fewer trafficking prosecutions than in its previous reporting period.
On South Korea
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Global Freedom Score83 100 free
Internet Freedom Score67 100 partly free