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South Korea experienced a number of major protests in 2008, including large demonstrations against the resumption of beef imports from the United States, labor union actions against planned economic reforms, and protests against alleged pro-Christian bias by newly elected President Lee Myung-bak, whose cabinet did not include a Buddhist. Parliamentary elections were held in April, with Lee’s Grand National Party capturing 153 out of 299 seats in the National Assembly. The country’s relations with North Korea cooled during the year, as Lee insisted that aid would be conditional on nuclear disarmament and progress on human rights issues.
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 13th 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, anger over the government’s failure to better supervise the country’s banks and business conglomerates in the midst of a regional financial crisis led South Koreans in December 1997 to elect Kim Dae-jung as president—making him the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election.
Kim Dae-jung came to power seeking to improve inter-Korean relations. His efforts to reach out to North Korea culminated in a historic June 2000 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. With Kim Dae-jung 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 defeated the favored Lee Hoi-chang of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP).
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 election irregularities involving millions of dollars in illegal corporate donations. In October 2003, lawmakers loyal to Roh formed the Uri Party (“Our 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 technical breach of election rules. While Roh had stepped down, the Uri Party won 152 seats during parliamentary elections in 2004, taking control of the chamber. Following the election, the Constitutional Court overturned the impeachment vote, and Roh was reinstated as president. Nevertheless, his popularity entered a period of sustained decline.
In the December 2007 presidential election, former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak of the GNP—who promised economic growth and reciprocity in dealing with North Korea—won with 48.7 percent of the vote, defeating former unification minister Chung Dong-young of the Uri Party, who took 26.1 percent. Lee took office as president in February 2008. The GNP scored another victory in the April parliamentary elections, winning 131 seats outright and an additional 22 seats through proportional representation; the opposition Democratic Party (formerly the Uri Party) captured 66 seats outright and received 15 proportional seats.
President Lee shifted South Korea’s foreign-policy priorities to focus on strengthening relations with the United States rather than improving ties with North Korea. At an April 2008 summit meeting between Lee and his U.S. counterpart in April, South Korea agreed to resume U.S. beef imports that had ended in 2003 when the United States recorded an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad-cow disease. The resumption was designed to encourage the countries’ respective legislatures to ratify a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) signed in April 2007. However, opposition parties and groups opposed to the FTA mobilized mass protests against the resumption of beef imports, and the protests grew when a television network’s investigative news program incorrectly stated that an American woman had died from a new variant of BSE that affects human beings. Over the next two months, tens of thousands of people held candlelight vigils to protest U.S. beef.
Taking advantage of the outcry over beef imports, labor unions joined the protests in Seoul to oppose the new government’s plans for privatizing public corporations. Meanwhile, Buddhist monks and their followers protested against the president’s alleged regional and pro-Christian bias. Lee was a Christian church elder and had been accused of appointing only Christians to top posts. The various protests eventually subsided in August, after the government moved to renegotiate the import agreement and the president, acknowledging his administration’s missteps, replaced a number of senior advisers.
On the North Korea issue, Lee had pledged to break from his predecessors’ policy of unconditional engagement with Pyongyang, arguing that relations should be linked to human rights improvements and disarmament cooperation by the North. Because the DPRK refused to fully disable its nuclear facilities or provide a complete account of its nuclear program during the year, the North-South dialogue was largely frozen in 2008. Furthermore, the Lee administration stated in March 2008 that it would support resolutions in UN bodies that criticized North Korea’s human rights violations. South Korea had repeatedly refrained from supporting such measures in previous years, with the exception of 2006, when the DPRK had conducted nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
South Korea is an electoral democracy. Elections are free and fair, and the government is elected on the basis of universal suffrage. The 1988 constitution 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. The improvements have generally been maintained in subsequent elections.
Political pluralism is robust in South Korean politics, with multiple political parties competing for power. The two largest parties are the GNP and the Democratic Party, formerly the Uri Party.
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 40 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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 former president Roh Moo-hyun tried to push through legislation that would have restricted the circulation of conservative dailies, but the bill did not pass. In October 2007, the outgoing 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 them as an attempt to muzzle or influence the press. The new government under Lee Myung-bak ended this press restriction in March 2008 and returned to the former policy of more openness.
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 accordance with the National Security Law. This law is applied selectively and only rarely.
South Korea respects freedom of assembly, and the Law on Assembly and Demonstrations requires only that the police be informed in advance of all demonstrations, including political rallies. Major demonstrations on a range of political issues were mounted during the spring and summer of 2008. Human rights groups, social welfare organizations, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active and, for most part, operate freely. However, the government’s approach to issues related to North Korea can impede NGO activities. In September 2008, the current conservative government arrested four members of a progressive civic group for allegedly praising North Korea.
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. Labor leaders are frequently arrested for fomenting unrest. In May 2008, the Ministry of Justice arrested two leaders of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrant Trade Union who were protesting government crackdowns against illegal workers.
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 verbal and physical abuse of detainees. While South Korea’s prisons lack certain amenities, such as hot water in the winter, there have been few reports of beatings or intimidation by guards.
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 enjoy legal equality, they face discrimination in practice, 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.