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Freedom in the World

South Korea

South Korea

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


President-elect Roh Moo-hyun takes office in February 2003 with a pro-market, yet populist, economic agenda and a strategy of reaching out to bellicose North Korea, which in 2002 raised tensions in East Asia by threatening to openly restart its nuclear weapons program. The left-leaning Roh's emphasis on defusing the North Korean threat through dialogue rather than containment will likely strain South Korea's critical, decades-old security ties with the United States. The Bush Administration favors a more muscular approach toward Pyongyang, applying economic pressure while holding out the possibility of aid, dialogue, and other rewards for disarmament.

The Republic of Korea was established in 1948, three years after the United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula in the waning days of World War II. During the next four decades, South Korea's mainly military rulers crushed left-wing dissent and kept the country on a virtual war footing in response to the threat from North Korea. They also oversaw state-led industrialization that transformed a poor, agrarian land into the world's 11th-largest economy.

South Korea's democratic transition began in 1987, when military strongman Chun Doo-hwan gave in to widespread student protests and allowed his successor to be chosen in a direct presidential election. In voting that December, Chun's protege, Roh Tae-woo, defeated the country's best-known dissidents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.

After joining the ruling party in 1990, Kim Young-sam defeated Kim Dae-jung in the 1992 presidential election to become South Korea's first civilian president since 1961. As president, Kim cracked down on corruption, sacked hardline military officers, and curbed the powers of the domestic security services. His administration also successfully prosecuted former presidents Chun and Roh for corruption and treason.

In 1997, however, South Korea went through its worst financial crisis in decades. Slowing exports, a tumbling currency, and the fallout from years of reckless corporate borrowing brought the nation close to default on $150 billion in private sector debt. Seoul agreed to a $57 billion International Monetary Fund-led bailout in return for pledging to restructure companies and end lifetime job guarantees. Amid public anger over the government's failure to better supervise the country's banks and business conglomerates, Kim Dae-jung in December 1997 became South Korea's first opposition candidate to win a presidential election.

Under Kim's watch, South Korea's economy rebounded to become one of the most robust in Asia. Critics argued, however, that the quick turnaround blunted the administration's zeal for forcing the country's large, family-owned business conglomerates, known as chaebol, and other firms to adopt better business practices. Meanwhile, Daewoo Motors and other firms seeking foreign suitors or pressed by foreign creditors laid off thousands of workers. Trade unions charged that workers were being forced to bear the brunt of economic restructuring costs.

Kim also pursued a "sunshine policy" toward North Korea that included making an unprecedented state visit to Pyongyang in 2000 and encouraging South Korean businesses to invest in the North and ordinary citizens to travel there for tourism and family reunions. A former dissident whom military rulers once tried to kill, Kim also freed dozens of political prisoners.

Kim's popularity waned towards the end of his five-year term amid his failure to gain any real concessions from North Korea, a series of corruption scandals, blue-collar anger over layoffs, and the disillusionment that invariably follows high political expectations. The opposition Grand National Party (GNP) won the most seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections, although gains by Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) prevented the conservative GNP from winning a majority. Under a record-low 57 percent turnout, the GNP won 133 seats, up from 122 in 1996. The MDP won 115, up from 99 in 1996. Smaller parties and independents took the remaining 25 seats. With Kim constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, Roh, 56, won the December 19, 2002, presidential elections as the MDP's candidate even though the party had been battered during the year by corruption scandals involving top bureaucrats and two of Kim's sons. A former human rights lawyer, Roh laced his campaign with anti-American rhetoric and populist promises. He pledged to pursue dialogue with North Korea and not "kowtow" to Washington, and to improve corporate governance and protect local rice farmers.

Roh defeated Lee Hoi Chang, the GNP candidate, by a slim 2.3 percentage points. His MDP now hopes to win control of parliament in elections due in 2004. The GNP gained a majority in the National Assembly in August by winning 11 of 13 by-elections.

North Korea policy will likely take center stage for much of Roh's term. Pyongyang in late 2002 announced that it had reneged on a 1994 deal to scrap its nuclear weapons program. It also threw out UN inspectors monitoring a mothballed nuclear reactor that has the capacity to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

South Koreans can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The 1988 constitution vests executive powers in a directly elected president who is limited to a single five-year term. The National Assembly is directly elected for a four-year term.

South Korea's judiciary "has shown increasing independence," although "several scandals in 1999 involving alleged illegal influence peddling and cronyism have damaged the image of prosecutors and judges," according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. In a positive development, police abuse of suspects in custody seems to be declining, human rights groups say. Moreover, some police offenders have been punished with dismissal, demotion, or pay cuts. Nevertheless, criminal suspects and prisoners continue to face some ill-treatment by law enforcement officials, according to a December report by the human rights group Amnesty International.

Most of the dozens of political prisoners released by Kim Dae-jung were held under South Korea's broadly drawn National Security Law (NSL). Even while clearing South Korean jails of most long-term political prisoners, however, Kim's administration reportedly used the NSL to arrest more than 990 people, according to the Amnesty International report. Many of the hundreds of arrests were for peaceful activities that allegedly aided or supported North Korea. Many recent NSL detainees have received suspended sentences or short prison terms, although others have been handed long jail terms. At least 39 people were being held under the NSL as of October 2002, the Amnesty report said.

The peaceful activities that brought arrest under the NSL included discussing reunification; traveling to North Korea without official permission; praising the North, its leaders, or its state creed of "self-reliance"; or publishing, possessing, or distributing pro-Pyongyang literature. The government says that it needs to continue using the NSL against suspected dissidents because of the continued threat from North Korea. South Korean jails also hold some 1,600 conscientious objectors who rejected compulsory military service, according to the Amnesty report.

South Korean newspapers are privately owned and report fairly aggressively on governmental policies and alleged official wrongdoing. The government, however, wields indirect influence over the media, in part through vigorous lobbying of reporters and editors, the U.S. State Department report said. In a setback for press freedom, courts have in recent years jailed several journalists under criminal libel laws. Media rights groups say that politicians and businessmen use the libel laws to punish journalists for articles that are critical although factually accurate.

In a controversial move, the government in 2001 fined 23 media companies a record $390 million for tax evasion. Tax authorities also filed related criminal charges against five media executives, including the owners of South Korea's two largest newspapers, Chosun Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo. The opposition GNP and some international press freedom groups accused the government of trying to gag the press. Many civic groups and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, however, viewed the cases as ordinary tax-evasion matters.

Women enjoy equal access to education, but face job discrimination in the private sector and are disadvantaged by some government agencies' preferential hiring of military veterans, most of whom are men, according to the U.S. State Department report. Violence and sexual harassment against women continue to be serious problems despite recent legislation and other initiatives to protect women. Women's groups say that rape and sexual harassment generally are not prosecuted and that convicted offenders often receive light sentences.

South Korean labor unions are independent and practice collective bargaining extensively. Under Kim Dae-jung's administration, at least 850 trade unionists were detained for their involvement in strikes or other protests, according to the December Amnesty International report. Some were charged with using violence during confrontations with police, who at times appeared to use excessive force against unarmed protesters; at least 39 of those arrested remained in prison as of October 2002, the report added.

The law prohibits defense and white-collar government workers from forming unions, although the latter can form more limited workplace councils. It also bars strikes in government agencies, state-run enterprises, and defense firms. A 1998 act authorized multiple unions at the company level beginning in 2002, although labor, management, and the government have jointly agreed to postpone implementation until 2006. Around 12 percent of South Korean workers were unionized in 2000, according to official figures. Despite recent government initiatives to improve their situation, some of the more than 300,000 foreign workers in South Korea are, at times, beaten or detained by employers, or have their wages withheld or passports seized, the U.S. State Department report said.

Anecdotal reports suggest that bribery, extortion by officials, and influence peddling continue to be pervasive in politics, business, and daily life. The Berlin-based Transparency International in 2002 ranked South Korea in a 4-way tie for 40th place out of 102 countries it surveyed for corruption, with the top-ranked country, Finland, being the least corrupt.

Because citizenship is based on parentage rather than place of birth, many of South Korea's 20,000 ethnic Chinese residents face difficulty in obtaining citizenship. This makes it hard for them to get government jobs. Ethnic Chinese also face discrimination in mainstream society, according to the U.S. State Department report.