South Korea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Korea

South Korea

Freedom in the World 2012

2012 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


After escalating provocations on the Korean peninsula in 2010, inter-Korean relations remained at a stalemate for the first half of 2011. While bilateral talks resumed in February, attempts at dialogue were largely unsuccessful. Criticism of President Lee’s hardline stance against North Korea and on other key domestic issues weakened his influence and that of the ruling Grand National Party. The opposition Democratic Party made key gains in both the April and October by-elections, including winning the mayoral seat of Seoul.

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, 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.

Kim Dae-jung’s efforts to reach out to North Korea culminated in a historic Inter-Korean summit in 2000 with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Roh Moo-hyun, a human rights lawyer and former cabinet minister who won the 2002 presidential election on the ruling liberal party’s ticket, took office in February 2003 facing an economic slowdown, an opposition-led parliament, and North Korea’s revival of its nuclear weapons program. Former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) won the 2007 presidential election. The GNP also won the majority of seats in the 2008 parliamentary elections, while the opposition Democratic Party (DP) and four smaller parties and independents accounted for the remainder.

Lee’s foreign policy has focused on strengthening relations with the United States while taking a hardline stance against North Korea. However, the president and his party have been heavily criticized for their alleged “authoritarian style” of governance, business-friendly reform agenda, and other deviations from previous presidential policies. Nevertheless, 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 being hit by the 2008 global financial crisis.

Relations with North Korea grew tense in April 2009 after Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the multilateral Six-Party Talks on its nuclear weapons program and proceeded to test a long-range missile. It then conducted its second nuclear weapons test in May. The UN Security Council responded by tightening sanctions on the North.

North Korea denied involvement in the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, which killed 46 crew members. An international group of experts—which did not include members from North Korea, China, or Russia—concluded that the ship had been struck by a North Korean torpedo. South Korea vowed retaliation and demanded that Pyongyang apologize and prosecute the officers responsible. Pyongyang proclaimed that it would not engage in dialogue with the South until after Lee left office.

In June 2010, 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. However, in response to joint U.S.–South Korean live-fire naval exercises in November, 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, including the first civilian deaths since the Korean War.

North Korea also revealed to the international community in November 2010 that it had built a modern uranium enrichment facility, heightening fears that it would produce weapons grade uranium. This revelation sparked public debate in the South whether it should reintroduce U.S. tactical nuclear weapons or pursue a nuclear weapons program of its own.

Inter-Korean talks resumed again in February 2011, though there was little progress. Lee’s hardline stance against the North, insisting on preconditions to meaningful engagement, continued to attract domestic and international criticism.

The DP made important gains in the April 2011 by-elections, in which three parliamentary seats, one provincial governor and several local councilor seats were contested. In August, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon of the GNP resigned from office after losing a referendum to reduce free school lunches in the city’s school system—a referendum that was at the center of an emerging debate on public welfare. DP candidate Park Won-soon defeated the GNP’s Na Kyung-won for Seoul’s mayoral seat in October.

On October 12, 2011, the United States Congress ratified the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), which was first signed by the two countries in June 2007, and renegotiated in December 2010. While ratification of the agreement was met with heated debate in the Korean National Assembly, it was approved on November 22, and KORUS FTA is expected to go into force in early 2012.

In November, South Korea, Japan, and the United States held trilateral strategy coordination talks and reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate in their dealings with North Korea. Inter-Korean relations are expected to improve, as South Korea made plans to resume humanitarian aid to the North through third party organizations at year’s end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

South Korea is an electoral democracy. 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 proportional representation, all for four-year terms.

Political pluralism is robust, with multiple parties competing for power. The two largest parties have been the conservative GNP and the liberal DP, which merged with the Citizens Unity Party in December 2011 to become the Democratic United 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 43 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 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. Although media censorship is illegal, official censorship has increased under the administration of Lee Myung-bak, particularly of online content. The government has also attempted to influence the news of media outlets and interfered with the management of major broadcast media. The National Security Law stipulates that South Koreans may not listen to North Korean radio, though no effective measures are in place to block access to North Korean broadcasts.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion. However, Buddhist groups have accused the Lee government of religious bias. On January 10, 2011, some 230 monks and lay staff from the Jogye Order staged a three-hour peaceful protest at Chonggye Plaza in Seoul, intensifying criticism of the ruling GNP for budget cuts affecting social welfare and Buddhist activities. Academic freedom is 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.

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 June 2011, a Korean Broadcasting System reporter was investigated on allegations of illegal wiretapping of the DP chief’s office. However, the police investigation ended in November for lack of evidence. Travel both within South Korea and abroad is unrestricted. The only exception is travel to North Korea, for which government approval is required.

South Korea respects freedom of assembly. The law requires that police be informed in advance of all demonstrations and that assemblies not undermine public order. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have alleged that while protesters are convicted under this law, police have not been equally penalized for mistreating demonstrators. Anti-military and environmental activists staged ongoing protests since construction began of a ROK naval base at Gangjeong (on Jeju Island) in January 2011. Protests intensified in August and September, and police detained 35 protestors for illegally obstructing a government project. Thousands of students also participated in protests in Seoul throughout the year to demand that the government fulfill its promise to reduce college tuition fees. In September, police used water cannons to disperse student protesters for what authorities considered to be illegal demonstrations; 49 protesters were taken into custody. Water cannons were also used by the authorities in response to mass protests that took place in Seoul in November over the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement.

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. In December 2010, Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction cut 400 jobs from its Busan shipyard. Kim Jin-suk, a member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, waged a solitary protest in a crane bed 35 meters in the air that lasted 309 days. After an 11-month deadlock, Hanjin reached an agreement with labor activists to reinstate 94 of the laid-off workers within one year. Kim was arrested at the end of her protest for trespassing and disturbing business.

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. 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.

The country’s few ethnic minorities face legal and societal discrimination. 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. In April 2011, the National Assembly approved revisions to the Korean Nationality Law, allowing dual citizenship to be granted to certain populations, including foreigners married to Koreans and Koreans who gained foreign nationality through marriage or adoption. Excluded from eligibility were Chinese residents, causing some controversy.

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. Women continue to be underrepresented in government following the 2008 elections, comprising just 14 percent of National Assembly seats. South Korea is one of the few countries outside the Muslim world where adultery is a criminal offense.