Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
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 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.