Freedom in the World

South Korea

South Korea

Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


South Korea held a presidential election on December 19, 2007. Lee Myung Bak of the opposition Grand National Party won the election over the ruling party candidate, Chung Dong-young. The outgoing president Roh Moo-hyun held an October summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The two pledged to work toward a formal peace treaty, cooperate on economic development projects, and resolve the North’s nuclear disarmament through the ongoing Six-Party Talks. However, the summit failed to address the human rights tragedy in North Korea. South Korea successfully negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States in April, though it had yet to be ratified by the countries’ respective legislatures.

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 to accept the surrender of the Japanese army. The subsequent Korean War (1950–53) 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 dissent and maintained a tightly controlled society in response to the continuing threat from the North. During this period, South Korea implemented an export-led industrialization drive that transformed the poor, agrarian land into the 11th largest economy in the world.

South Korea began its democratic transition in 1987, when military strongman Chun Doo-hwan acceded to widespread protests by students and the middle class, allowing his successor to be chosen in a direct presidential election. In the December balloting, Roh Tai-woo, Chun’s protégé and fellow general, defeated the country’s two best-known dissidents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, as the opposition failed to unite behind a single candidate.

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 tried to reduce corruption, sacked hard-line military officers, curbed the domestic security services, and successfully prosecuted former presidents Chun and Roh for corruption and treason. However, under his watch, the private sector overextended itself with excessive borrowing. When a contagious regional financial crisis struck in 1997–98, South Korea had depleted its foreign exchange reserves and had to ask for a record bailout package of $55 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Angry over the government’s failure to better supervise the country’s banks and business conglomerates, South Koreans in December 1997 elected Kim Dae-jung as president, making him the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election.

Kim Dae-jung came to power wanting to improve inter-Korean relations. His efforts to reach out to North Korea culminated in the historic June 2000 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for this achievement, which was later tarnished by revelations of a “payoff” to Kim Jong-il amounting to as much as $500 million. 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. With Kim constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, Roh Moo-hyun, a human rights lawyer and former minister of maritime affairs and fisheries, won the December 2002 presidential election on the ruling party’s ticket. He narrowly beat the favored Lee Hoi-chang of the GNP, after a campaign in which Roh mixed populist promises with anti-American rhetoric. Anti-American sentiment had grown 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, and contrasting approaches to North Korea. The surge of anti-Americanism during the election, however, occurred because the U.S. authorities mishandled the accidental killings of two Korean girls by a U.S. armored vehicle, and vested interests in South Korea manipulated the situation for political ends.

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, 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. In October 2003, lawmakers loyal to Roh—mostly from his Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), but a few from the GNP—formed the Uri Party to support the embattled president. Just one year into his term, the opposition brought a parliamentary motion to impeach Roh. The charges concerned a minor, at most technical, breach of election rules—Roh had urged support for the Uri Party. 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. Although Roh had stepped down from power following the impeachment vote, the election results 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 and sizable defections in 2007. In August of that year, the Uri Party merged with its splintered factions to form the United New Democratic Party (UNDP), which nominated Chung Dong-young, a former minister of unification and chairman of the Uri Party, as its candidate for president in the December 19, 2007, election. He lost to the conservative Grand National Party candidate, Lee Myung Bak, a former mayor of Seoul who promised economic growth and reciprocity in dealing with North Korea. Lee won with 48.7 percent of the popular vote to Chung’s 26.1 percent. The voter turnout was 62.9 percent, an all-time low.

In April 2007, South Korea and the United States signed a free trade agreement (FTA). The pact still had to win ratification by the two countries’ legislatures, where it faced significant opposition.

South Korea’s most important foreign policy objective has been to improve relations with North Korea. Roh in 2007 generally maintained his “peace and prosperity” engagement policy—a continuation of the “sunshine” policy of Kim Dae-jung—despite North Korea’s missile and nuclear-device tests in 2006. After boycotting the Six-Party Talks, multilateral negotiations designed to denuclearize North Korea, Pyongyang agreed to rejoin the talks in 2007 and later pledged to disable its nuclear facilities by the end of the year. However, the process remained incomplete at year’s end, with the DPRK citing delays in the delivery of promised aid. Pyongyang did, however, continue its disablement of the Yongbyon reactor but did not declare its nuclear program by year’s end as agreed upon in the February 13 Agreement. Roh met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in October, only the second summit between the two Koreas. The leaders pledged to work toward formally ending the Korean War and cooperating on economic development projects.

With respect to human rights policy toward North Korea, 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 2003, 2004, and 2005. In November 2006, South Korea voted with the majority of member states to recognize and condemn North Korea’s violations. However, the 2007 Korean summit meeting did not address human rights issues.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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. The two largest parties are the UNDP (formerly the Uri Party) and the GNP.

Despite the overall health of the South Korean political system, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion by officials have not been eradicated from politics, business, and everyday life. South Korea was ranked 43 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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 National Security Law 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 administration of President Roh Moo-hyun recently came under attack for trying to push through legislation that would restrict the circulation of conservative dailies; the bill did not pass. In October 2007, the government closed all government pressrooms except for the pressroom in the Central Government Complex. The Government Information Agency said the closures were designed to upgrade the “support system for news coverage.” Journalists criticized the closures as an attempt to muzzle or influence the press. Reporters are not permitted to enter government buildings without prior authorization and can interview ministers and other government officials only after receiving state permission. International press freedom groups have sent letters urging the Roh administration to maintain an open-access media policy.

The constitution 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 organizations are active and, for most part, operate freely. There exists, however, a climate of fear and heavy-handedness by the government in some instances when nongovernmental organizations’ activities go against the policies of the state.

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.

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.

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. Nevertheless, political and business elites often carry two cell phones and change their numbers frequently to evade what they perceive as intrusive government eavesdropping. 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 equal rights with respect to inheritance. Previously, married women were considered to be part of their husband’s family and were not eligible to inherit family property.