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The popularity of President Roh Moo-huyn continued to decline in 2006, as his liberal Uri Party lost several provincial governorship elections. At the United Nations, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was elected to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary general. Also during the year, South Korea, a member of the UN Commission on Human Rights with an otherwise strong voting record, changed policy to vote in favor of a resolution condemning North Korean violations after three years of “absence” or “abstention” on the issue.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) was established on the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula in 1948, three years after the Allied victory in World War II ended Japan’s 35-year occupation. U.S. and Soviet forces had divided the peninsula between them, initially in order to accept the surrender of the Japanese army. The subsequent Korean War (1950–1953) pitted the U.S.- and UN-backed ROK, or South Korea, against the Soviet- and Chinese-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, and left some three million Koreans dead or wounded. In the decades that followed the 1953 armistice, South Korea’s mainly military rulers crushed left-wing dissent and kept the nation on a war footing in response to the continuing threat from the North. South Korea also led an industrialization drive that transformed the poor, agrarian land into one of the world’s largest economies.
South Korea began its democratic transition 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 the December balloting, Chun’s protégé, Roh Tai-woo, defeated the country’s two 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, he reduced 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 the former dissident Kim Dae-jung, who became the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election. Under his leadership, 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 273 seats, with Kim’s Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) taking 115. With Kim constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, Roh Moo-huyn, 56, won the December 2002 presidential elections on the MDP ticket. He narrowly beat Lee Hoi-chang of the GNP, after a campaign in which Roh mixed populist promises with anti-American rhetoric. (Anti-American sentiment has grown in recent years due to disputes over the U.S.-ROK Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the location of a huge U.S. army base in downtown Seoul, the handling of the accidental killings of Korean schoolchildren by a U.S. armored vehicle in 2002, and contrasting approaches to North Korea.)
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. In addition, a major fundraising scandal added urgency to long-standing calls 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, had accepted millions of dollars in illegal corporate donations before and after the 2002 presidential election. The parliament put off consideration of several bills as it remained at loggerheads with Roh over how to investigate the scandal. In October 2003, lawmakers loyal to Roh—mostly from the MDP, but a few from the GNP—formed the Uri Party. The following month, Roh vetoed a GNP bill calling for an independent counsel to investigate allegations of corruption in his administration. The president said that any independent investigation should wait until prosecutors 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 a parliamentary motion to impeach him. The charges against him concerned a minor, at most technical, breach of election rules (Roh had urged support for the Uri Party), and were widely seen as exaggerated, if not inappropriate. South Korean voters demonstrated their disapproval of the proceedings by supporting the president’s party in parliamentary elections held in April 2004. The Uri Party won 152 seats, taking control of the chamber. The GNP and the 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 and proved that the impeachment vote had been 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. Nevertheless, his popularity entered a period of sustained decline and the Uri Party suffered substantial losses in provincial gubernatorial elections in May 2006.
South Korea’s relations with North Korea—particularly the appropriateness of the 1948 National Security Law (NSL)—remained a major issue in 2006. The NSL assumes an antagonistic relationship between North and South Korea and combines legitimate counterespionage measures with vague prohibitions on “anti-state activities” and “benefiting the enemy,” and restrictions on expression, movement, and the media. The NSL retained support among a section of the public and Parliament, while opponents were divided between advocates of reform and total abolition. In the absence of a consensus on the matter, the NSL remained unchanged.
Roh for the most part maintained his “peace and prosperity” engagement policy toward North Korea—a continuation of the “sunshine” policy of his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung—despite North Korea’s missile tests in July and its test of a nuclear device in October, which drew international condemnation. Also in October, ROK Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was elected to succeed Kofi Annan as UN secretary general.
The following month witnessed a major change in South Korea’s human rights policy toward North Korea. Previously, in 2003, 2004, and 2005, South Korea had “absented” itself or “abstained” on European Union–sponsored resolutions at the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly that criticized North Korea’s severe human rights violations. In November 2006, however, South Korea voted with the majority of member states to recognize and condemn North Korea’s violations.
South Korea is an electoral democracy. Elections are free and fair, and the government is elected on the basis of universal suffrage. The constitution, which was created in 1988, vests executive power in a directly elected president, who is limited to a single five-year term. The unicameral National Assembly, consisting of 299 members, is elected for a four-year term. The 2004 parliamentary elections demonstrated that major steps had been taken since 2002 to improve electoral processes. The advances included adherence to campaigning rules, record levels of voter turnout, and a reduction in electoral irregularities under the watch of the National Election Commission.
Political pluralism is robust in South Korean politics, with multiple political parties competing for power. Major parties include the Uri Party, the MDP, the GNP, the United Liberal Democrats (ULP), and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
Despite the overall health of the South Korean political system, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion by officials have not been eradicated from political, business, and everyday life. South Korea was ranked 42 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
South Korea’s news media are free and competitive. Newspapers are privately owned and report fairly aggressively on governmental policies and alleged official and corporate wrongdoing. The government directly censors films for sex and violence, though it has been increasingly liberal in recent years. Violent and sexually explicit websites are also censored. The administration of President Roh has recently come under attack for trying to push through legislation that would restrict the circulation of conservative dailies, thereby curbing their influence in a sharply divided country; the law did not pass. The NSL stipulates that South Koreans may not listen to North Korean radio. However, no effective measures are in place to block access to broadcasts by North Korean stations.
The constitution in South Korea provides for freedom of religion, and the government does not enforce any state religion. Academic freedom is also unrestricted, with the exception of limits on statements of support for the North Korean regime or pro-Communist comments. In 2006, legal proceedings were initiated against a Dongguk University (Seoul) professor for writings and remarks considered to be pro–North Korean.
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 groups, social welfare organizations, and other nongovernmental groups are active and operate freely.
The country’s independent labor unions strongly advocate workers’ interests, organizing high-profile strikes and demonstrations that sometimes lead to arrests. The law 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. Collective bargaining is widespread among both legal and unrecognized labor federations.
South Korea’s judiciary is generally considered to be independent. There is no trial by jury; judges render verdicts in all cases. Officers of the National Police Administration, under the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, are occasionally responsible for human rights abuses such as verbal and physical abuse of detainees. The police are generally considered well disciplined and uncorrupt. In 2005, a handful of long-term prisoners held under the 1948 NSL were released, leaving only a few cases in 2006.
Because South Korean citizenship is based on parentage rather than place of birth, residents who are not ethnic Koreans face extreme difficulties obtaining citizenship. Lack of citizenship bars them from the civil service and also limits job opportunities at some major corporations. The country’s 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 telephone calls, mail, and e-mail. Travel both within South Korea and abroad is unrestricted; the only exception is travel to North Korea, for which government approval is required.
Although women in South Korea possess de jure equality, there is de facto discrimination in society, with men enjoying more social privileges and better employment opportunities. However, a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in July 2005 granted married women in South Korea equal rights with respect to the inheritance of property owned by family clans. Previously, married women were considered to be part of their husband’s family and were not eligible to inherit family property. Women’s rights groups in South Korea hailed the decision as a significant step in the reduction of gender discrimination within the family. A South Korean diplomat, Mrs. Kang Kyung-wha, chaired the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and in late 2006 she was appointed deputy UN high commissioner for human rights.