Freedom in the World
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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
South Korea's political rights rating improved from 2 to 1 due to the holding of free and fair parliamentary elections following a highly politicized impeachment process.
The South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, survived a political crisis in early 2004 when the opposition brought about a parliamentary vote to impeach him. South Koreans backed Roh's party, the Uri Party, in parliamentary elections in April, however, giving him a major victory and allowing him to return to power in May after the Constitutional Court overturned the impeachment vote. Nevertheless, the Uri party holds only a narrow majority in parliament, and Roh's aggressive style continues to polarize.
The Republic of Korea was established in 1948, three years after the Allied victory in World War II ended Japan's 35-year colonization of Korea and led to the division of the Korean Peninsula between U.S. and Soviet forces. During the Cold War, South Korea's mainly military rulers crushed left-wing dissent and kept the nation on a virtual war footing in response to the continuing threat from the North following the Korean War in the early 1950s. They also led an industrialization drive that transformed a poor, agrarian land into the world's eleventh-largest economy.
South Korea's democratic transition began in 1987, when military strongman Chun Doo-hwan acceded 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 hard-line military officers, curbed the domestic security services, and successfully prosecuted former presidents Chun and Roh for corruption and treason. However, the country was hit hard by the regional financial crisis of 1997-1998. Angry over the government's failure to better supervise the country's banks and business conglomerates, South Koreans in December 1997 elected as president former dissident Kim Dae-jung, who became the country's first opposition candidate to win a presidential election. Under Kim Dae-jung, South Korea's economy rebounded to become one of the most robust in Asia.
Public frustration with a series of corruption scandals, along with criticism that Kim Dae-jung's policy of engagement with North Korea had reaped few benefits, helped the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) take the most seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections. It captured 133 out of parliament's 273 seats, with Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) taking 115.
With Kim Dae-jung constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, Roh, 56, won the December 2002 presidential elections on the MDP ticket. Roh narrowly beat Lee Hoi-chang, the candidate of the main opposition Grand National Party, after a campaign in which Roh mixed populist promises with anti-American rhetoric.
Roh took office in February 2003 facing an economic slowdown, an opposition-led parliament, and public moves by North Korea to revive its nuclear weapons program. A major fundraising scandal during the year added urgency to longstanding calls from many quarters for an overhaul of South Korea's campaign finance laws. Late in the year, prosecutors were investigating allegations that former top aides to Roh, as well as legislators from across the political spectrum, accepted millions of dollars in illegal corporate donations before and after the 2002 presidential election. The opposition-led parliament put off consideration of several bills as it remained at loggerheads with Roh over how to investigate the scandal. Roh vetoed a GNP bill in November calling for an independent counsel to investigate allegations of corruption in his administration. The president said that any independent investigation should wait until prosecutors currently investigating three of his former aides finished their work. Elected on pledges to improve corporate governance, bring greater transparency to state institutions, and engage, rather than contain, bellicose North Korea, Roh was forced to reshuffle his priorities.
In February 2004, Roh survived a political crisis when the opposition brought about a parliamentary vote to impeach him. Although the opposition had long been averse to his policies and his generally anti-establishment position, the actual charges on which the vote was based related to breach of election rules, economic mismanagement and corruption. South Korean voters, however, were more put off by this unprecedented action than by the charges (which were in any case inflated), and they demonstrated their distaste for the opposition's politically motivated maneuvering by supporting the president's party in parliamentary elections held in April 2004. Roh's party, the Uri Party, won 152 seats to become the majority ruling party. The Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), the main opposition parties and the instigators of the impeachment vote, won 121 seats and 9 seats, respectively. The MDP's loss was particularly severe, as the party had previously held over 60 seats, and it proved that the impeachment vote was an enormous miscalculation. Although Roh had stepped down from power following the impeachment vote, the Uri Party's victory in the parliamentary elections led the Constitutional Court to overturn the impeachment vote, and Roh was reinstated as president in May. Nevertheless, the Uri party holds only a narrow majority in parliament, and Roh's aggressive style continues to polarize.
Though the Uri party now controls parliament, the economy is still under-performing. Labor disputes are becoming more contentious, and so negotiations with South Korea's famously strident labor unions should be an ongoing preoccupation for the current administration. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has yet to be fully engaged in disarmament talks.
South Koreans choose their government through free and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. The 1988 constitution vests executive powers in a directly elected president who is limited to a single five-year term. The unicameral National Assembly, comprising 299 members, is directly elected for a four-year term.
The April 2004 parliamentary elections were significant not only because they followed a vote to impeach the president, Roh Moo-hyun, but also because they brought about a shift in power in parliament for the first time in more than 40 years. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation, a U.S.-based think-tank, went so far as to call the elections a "victory for the electoral and campaign process in South Korea" - citing the improvement since 2002 in campaigning rules and the reduction in electoral irregularities under the watch of the National Election Commission - and a victory for democracy in general, noting that voter turnout, at 60 percent, reached an unprecedented level. Political participation and pluralism is vigorous; Roh's Uri party is itself a splinter of the MDP (the party of former president Kim Dae-jung) formed only in late 2003.
Nevertheless, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion by officials have not been eradicated from politics, business, and daily life. South Korea was ranked 47 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
South Korea's press generally is competitive. Newspapers are privately owned and report fairly aggressively on governmental policies and alleged official and corporate wrongdoing. Aggressive reporting, however, has landed several journalists in jail in recent years under criminal libel laws, some for reports that were critical but factually accurate. State-owned media display "a considerable degree of editorial independence," according to the U.S. State Department's 2003 human rights report released in February 2004. The same report noted, however, that the South Korean government does still exert indirect influence on the news media, through activities such as lobbying or initiating tax audits. In addition, the government directly censors films for sex and violence, though it has been increasingly liberal in recent years. Violent and sexually explicit Web sites are also censored.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and South Korea does not enforce any state religion. Academic freedom is also unrestricted. The only limits on freedom of expression concern ideas considered to be pro-Communist or supportive of the North Korean regime.
South Korea maintains freedom of association, and the Law on Assembly and Demonstrations requires only that the police be informed in advance of all demonstrations, including political rallies. Human rights, social welfare, and other nongovernmental groups are active and operate freely.
South Korea's independent labor unions strongly advocate workers' interests, often by organizing high-profile strikes and demonstrations that sometimes lead to arrests. At the end of November 2004, the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions led a one-day strike involving hundreds of thousands of workers to protest pending legislation that would increase flexibility in the labor market. The centerpiece of the proposed bill is a provision allowing companies to hire temporary workers. The law bars strikes by workers in government agencies, state-run enterprises, and defense firms. In addition, workers must observe notification and cooling-off provisions before striking and can be forced to submit to arbitration.
Beginning in 2006, multiple unions will be permitted at the company level, a change expected to give workers greater choice of representatives. The law, however, still bars defense industry and white-collar government workers from forming unions and bargaining collectively, although government workers can form more limited workplace councils. Even those federations not recognized by the government operate in practice without restriction, however. Collective bargaining is widespread among both legal and unrecognized labor federations.
South Korea's judiciary generally is considered to be independent, and the U.S. State Department report declared that it is "becoming increasingly so in practice." There is no trial by jury; judges render verdicts in all cases. The National Police Administration, under the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, is occasionally responsible for human rights abuses such as verbal and physical abuse of detainees. The police administration is generally considered well-disciplined and uncorrupt.
Laws concerning detention are often vague. Of particular concern is the broadly drafted National Security Law (NSL), which authorizes the arrest of South Koreans accused of espionage and/or viewed as supporting North Korea. Because there is wide latitude to interpret the wording of this law, several people are thought to have been arrested for nonthreatening expressions of political views that were ostensibly anti - South Korean or pro - North Korean. In August 2004 the Constitutional Court ruled that the law did not excessively restrict human rights, but in October, the ruling Uri party introduced legislation to loosen or scrap the law, offering the country alternatives ranging from revisions of the existing law to the drafting of an entirely new law. The move was part of the government's broader reform drive, but thousands of people rallied in protest, asserting that the law in its current form was still a necessary safeguard against security threats from North Korea.
Because South Korean citizenship is based on parentage rather than place of birth, non-ethnic South Koreans face extreme difficulties obtaining citizenship. Lack of citizenship bars them from the civil service and makes it harder to be hired by some major corporations. The very few ethnic minorities face legal and societal discrimination.
The government generally respects citizens' right to privacy. An Anti-Wiretap Law sets out the conditions under which the government can monitor phone calls, mail, and e-mail. Under the NSL, South Koreans may not listen to North Korean radio or read North Korean books if they are thought to be doing so to help that regime. This provision is rarely enforced, however, and North Korean media are freely available in South Korea. Travel both within South Korea and abroad is unrestricted; the only exception is travel to North Korea, for which government approval is required.
Women continue to face societal discrimination in this conservative country. Rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment of 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, in part because women are reluctant to bring cases, and convicted offenders often receive light sentences. According to the U.S. State Department report, South Korea is "a major origin, transit and destination point for trafficking in women and children destined for the sex trade and domestic servitude."