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South Korea

South Korea

Freedom in the World 2011

2011 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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The sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan by a North Korean torpedo in March 2010 increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, dominating South Korea’s foreign policy priorities for the year and spilling over into the domestic agenda as well. The June local elections brought unexpected victories for the opposition, forcing the ruling conservative Grand National Party to reevaluate its policy course. Inter-Korean relations gradually improved in the second half of the year, only to worsen sharply in November when the North launched a brief but intense artillery attack on an island held by the South. At year’s end, much of the South Korean public was calling for military retaliation.

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 following the 1953 armistice, South Korea’s mainly military rulers crushed dissent and maintained tight control over 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 country into one of the world’s leading economies.

South Korea began its democratic transition in 1987, when military strongman Chun Doo-hwan acceded to widespread protests, allowing his successor to be chosen in a direct presidential election. In the December balloting, Chun’s ally and fellow general Roh Tae-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, becoming South Korea’s first civilian president since 1961. He sacked hard-line military officers, curbed domestic security services, and successfully prosecuted former presidents Chun and Roh for corruption and treason. However, the government’s inability to mitigate a regional financial crisis led South Koreans to elect Kim Dae-jung as president in 1997, making him the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election.
Kim Dae-jung’s efforts to reach out to North Korea culminated in a historic 2000 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Roh Moo-hyun, a human rights lawyer and former cabinet minister, won the 2002 presidential election on the ruling liberal party’s ticket, narrowly defeating Lee Hoi-chang of the opposition conservative Grand National Party (GNP).
Roh took office in February 2003 facing an economic slowdown, an opposition-led parliament, and North Korea’s revival of its nuclear weapons program. Just one year into his term, the opposition moved to impeach Roh over a minor technical breach of election rules, and he stepped down temporarily. The Constitutional Court later overturned the impeachment vote, and Roh was reinstated.
Former Seoul mayorLee Myung-bak of the GNP won the December 2007 presidential election with 48.7 percent of the vote, defeating Chung Dong-young of the liberal Uri Party, who took 26.1 percent. In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the GNP won 131 seats outright and 22 seats through proportional representation; the opposition Democratic Party (formerly the Uri Party) took 66 seats outright and 15 proportional seats. Four smaller parties and independents accounted for the remainder.
Lee’s foreign policy was focused on strengthening relations with the United States. His decision to resume U.S. beef imports in April 2008 drew weeks of protests in the form of mass candlelight vigils. The demonstrations were driven in part by broader disappointment with the new administration’s alleged “authoritarian style” of governance, business-friendly reform agenda, and other changes from the policies of the two previous presidents. Lee was ultimately forced to reshuffle his cabinet and backtrack on much of his agenda.
Government and public attention shifted to the economy in late 2008 as a global financial crisis emerged. With aggressive fiscal intervention and heavy spending, the Lee administration was able to stabilize the financial sector, save the job market from massive layoffs, and steer the economy toward recovery after an initial plummet.
Relations with North Korea grew tense in 2009. In April, Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the multilateral Six-Party Talks on its nuclear weapons program, and tested a long-range missile. It then conducted its second nuclear weapons test in May. The UN Security Council tightened sanctions on the North in response.
Although inter-Korean relations improved toward the end of 2009, tensions flared again in March 2010 when the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan was sunk, killing 46 crew members. In May, an international group of experts concluded that the ship had been struck by a North Korean torpedo. The investigative team did not include members from North Korea, China, or Russia, and all three governments argued that the evidence implicating North Korea was inconclusive.
The experts’ findings triggered a series of escalatory provocations between the two Koreas. South Korea vowed retaliation and countermeasures, and demanded that Pyongyang apologize and prosecute the officers responsible. Pyongyang then proclaimed that it would not engage in dialogue with the South until after Lee was out of office. A seemingly real potential for war drove South Koreans to the polls for the June 2 local elections, and voter turnout reached 54 percent, the highest in 15 years. The GNP expected a landslide victory, but the opposition Democratic Party won 7 of 16 races—2 mayoral and 5 gubernatorial seats. The GNP won 4 mayoral seats, including Seoul, but only 2 gubernatorial seats. The remaining gubernatorial races went to the Liberty Forward Party and two independent candidates. The upset was largely seen as a gauge of public sentiment toward the Lee administration’s handling of the Cheonan incident.
In June, South Korea brought its case against North Korea to the UN Security Council, and in July the council issued a presidential statement to condemn the attack, without explicitly naming North Korea as the attacker.
With North Korea focused on domestic issues in the third quarter of 2010, and international pressure on both Koreas to calm regional tensions, inter-Korean relations began to improve. However, in response to joint U.S.–South Korean live-fire naval exercises, North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island on November 23. The South mounted a counterattack, with the entire exchange lasting an hour and causing a number of South Korean casualties. The year ended with tensions on the Korean Peninsula at their highest levels since the Korean War, and much of the South Korean public calling for military retaliation.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

South Korea is an electoral democracy. Elections are free and fair. The 1988 constitution vests executive power in a directly elected president, who is limited to a single five-year term. Of the unicameral National Assembly’s 299 members, 245 are elected in single-member districts and 54 are chosen through nationwide proportional representation, all for four-year terms. Political pluralism is robust, with multiple parties competing for power. The two largest parties are the conservative GNP and the liberal Democratic Party.
Despite the overall health of the political system, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion have not been eradicated from politics, business, and everyday life. South Korea was ranked 39 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The news media are free and competitive. Newspapers are privately owned and report fairly aggressively on government policies and alleged official and corporate wrongdoing. The government directly censors films for sex and violence, though it has been increasingly permissive 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 North Korean broadcasts.
In January 2010, four television producers and a writer were cleared of defamation charges for a 2008 report on U.S. beef imports that sparked weeks of protests. In April, more than 650 union members mounted a 39-day strike at MBC, South Korea’s second largest television network, to protest the appointment of Kim Jae-chul as network president. The union claimed that the Foundation for Broadcast Culture, a quasi-governmental body and owner of a 70 percent stake in the station, had undue influence over the decision, which was labeled an act of political cronyism. Nevertheless, the union’s call for Kim’s resignation went unheeded.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Academic freedom is also unrestricted, with the exception of limits on statements of support for the North Korean regime or communism, 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. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have alleged that while protesters are convicted under this law, police have not been equally penalized for mistreating demonstrators. In July 2010, a ban on nighttime rallies expired after legislators were unable to agree on revisions ordered by the Constitutional Court in 2009. Human rights groups, social welfare organizations, and other NGOs are active and for the most part operate freely.
The country’s independent labor unions advocate workers’ interests, organizing high-profile strikes and demonstrations that sometimes lead to arrests. However, labor unions in general have been diminishing in strength and popularity, especially amid the economic downturn.
South Korea’s judiciary is generally considered to be independent. There is no trial by jury; judges render verdicts in all cases. Police occasionally engage in verbal and physical abuse of detainees. In August 2010, Kang Hee-rak, commissioner general of the National Police Agency, resigned after five Seoul police officers were indicted for the torture of 22 people suspected of petty crimes, among other law enforcement scandals. 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.
Residents who are not ethnic Koreans face extreme difficulties obtaining citizenship, which is based on parentage rather than place of birth. Lack of citizenship bars them from the civil service and 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 the conditions under which the government can monitor telephone calls, mail, and e-mail. Nevertheless, political and business elites often carry two mobile phones and change their numbers frequently to evade what they perceive as intrusive government eavesdropping. In July 2010, former senior ethics officials from the Prime Minister’s Office were arrested over allegations of illegal surveillance of an opposition-aligned businessman; three were indicted in August on those and other charges. 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 2005 Supreme Court ruling granted married women equal rights with respect to inheritance. Previously, they were considered part of their husband’s family and were not eligible to inherit their own family’s property. South Korea is one of the few countries outside the Muslim world where adultery is a criminal offense.