South Korea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Korea

South Korea

Freedom in the World 2013

2013 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)



The Saenuri Party secured the largest number of seats in the April 2012 legislative elections, while in December, the Saenuri Party’s Park Guen-hye was elected the first female president in the country’s history. Several political and corruption scandals, especially within the Lee Myung-bak administration, occurred throughout the year. Meanwhile, tensions with North Korea increased, as the North launched a rocket that successfully sent a satellite into orbit, causing many to fear growing missile and warhead capabilities.

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 divided the peninsula between them as a condition of Japan’s surrender. 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 3 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’s export-led industrialization drive 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 allowed direct presidential elections. 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 won the 1992 presidential election, becoming South Korea’s first civilian president since 1961. He sacked hardline military officers, curbed domestic security services, and successfully prosecuted Chun and Roh for corruption and treason. Kim Dae-jung was elected 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, won the 2002 presidential election on the ruling liberal party’s ticket 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.

Lee focused on strengthening relations with the United States while taking a hard line against North Korea. Although the president and his party were heavily criticized for their alleged “authoritarian style” of governance, aggressive fiscal intervention and heavy spending enabled the Lee administration to stabilize the financial sector, prevent massive layoffs, and engineer an economic recovery after the 2008 global financial crisis.

Tensions with North Korea increased starting in April 2009 after Pyongyang withdrew from the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear weapons program and tested a long-range missile, followed by another nuclear test in May. Then, in March 2010, the North allegedly torpedoed the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, killing 46 crew members. In response to joint U.S.–South Korean live-fire naval exercises in November 2010, North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. The South mounted an hour-long counterattack, causing a number of South Korean casualties, including the first civilian deaths since the Korean War. Renewed Inter-Korean talks in February 2011 made little progress.

On October 12, 2011, the U.S. Congress ratified the Korea–United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). After heated debate, the Korean National Assembly ratified it on November 22, 2011, and it went into effect on March 15, 2012. Also in November, South Korea, Japan, and the United States reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate in their dealings with North Korea.

In the April 11, 2012 National Assembly elections, the Saenuri Party won 152 seats, while the Democratic United Party (DUP) took 127 seats. The United Progressive Party (UPP) captured 13 seats, the Liberty Forward Party took 5 seats, and independent candidates won 3 seats. Just days later, North Korea’s attempt to launch a communications satellite to celebrate the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth failed. South Korea and the international community viewed the launch as a test of the North’s long-range ballistic missiles, prohibited under UN Security Council resolutions, and a nullification of the US-DPRK agreement concluded just weeks beforehand.

In August, President Lee made an unprecedented visit to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Island, reigniting nationalistic tensions with Japan, which claims the island for itself. Japan responded by temporarily recalling its ambassador to Seoul.

In the December 19 presidential election, the Saenuri Party’s Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee (1961-1979), defeated DUP candidate and former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, 52 percent to 48 percent. Park, who had publicly apologized for her father’s legacy as a brutal dictator, became the first female president in the nation’s history.

North Korean provocations increased in 2012, including skirmishes along the disputed Northern Limit Line that divides Northern from Southern waters. A successful North Korean rocket launch on December 12 alarmed South Korea and many in the international community, who expressed concern that the launch was indicative of continued missile and warhead development and posed serious security threats both in the region and to the United States.

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 300 members, 246 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.

Despite the overall health of the political system, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion remain in politics, business, and everyday life. In December 2011, Kwak No-hyun, Seoul’s education superintendent, was indicted for paying 200 million won ($178,842) to a fellow liberal candidate to withdraw from the 2010 election. A regional Seoul court in January 2012 fined him 30 million won ($26,850) for violating the election law, but a Seoul appellate court sentenced him to a year in prison, finding the regional court’s fine too light. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling in September, stripping him of his post. In February 2012, the speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly, Park Hee-tae, resigned after allegations surfaced that he had obtained his post through bribery. A month before the April 2012 general elections, Lee Jung-hee, co-chair of the UPP, withdrew from the race for trying to rig the primary outcome against her DUP rival. In September, Choi See-joong, one of President Lee’s closest advisors and former chairman of the Korea Communications Commission, was arrested for accepting bribes from a real estate developer and sentenced to two and a half years in prison and a fine of 600 million won ($537,000). South Korea was ranked 45 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The news media are free and competitive. Newspapers are privately owned and report aggressively on government policies and alleged official and corporate wrongdoing. Although media censorship is illegal, official censorship, particularly of online content, increased under Lee Myung-bak’s administration. Reporters Without Borders has listed South Korea as a country “under surveillance” in its “Enemies of the Internet” report. Under the National Security Law, enacted in 1948 to prevent espionage and other threats from the North, listening to North Korean radio is illegal, as is posting pro-North messages online; authorities have deleted tens of thousands of web posts deemed to be pro-North. The United Nations Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International have called for the law to be scaled back or repealed, insisting that its broadly written provisions are being abused to silence political opposition. The government has also attempted to influence reporting by media outlets and has interfered with the management of major broadcast media. In July 2012, the labor union of Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation ended a 170-day strike of almost 700 employees that started in January over complaints that network president Kim Jae-chul demanded that news reports be favorable to the Lee administration. Striking workers called for Kim Jae-chul’s resignation; he had not stepped down as of year’s end.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion. However, Buddhist groups have accused the Lee government of religious bias.

Academic freedom is unrestricted, though the National Security Law limits statements supporting the North Korean regime or communism. A January 2012 students’ rights ordinance for all Seoul-based elementary, middle, and high schools bans corporal punishment and discrimination against students on the basis of gender, religion, age, race, sexual identity, or pregnancy and allows students to stage rallies. A related teachers’ rights ordinance was also announced. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court challenging the ordinance and filed an injunction to suspend its implementation, which the Supreme Court did in November. No further decisions on the two ordinances had been reached by the end of the year.

The government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy. An Anti-Wiretap Law sets the conditions under which the government may monitor telephone calls, mail, and e-mail. In March 2012, the Korean Broadcasting System reported that it had obtained 2,691 reports written by officials of the prime minister’s public ethics office evidencing illegal surveillance of a number of people, mostly those critical of the Lee administration, from 2009–2012. Although the public ethics office may legally monitor the government, these reports dealt mostly with personal information and attitudes towards the Lee administration. Travel both within South Korea and abroad is unrestricted, except for travel to North Korea, which requires government approval.

South Korea respects freedom of assembly, but police must receive advance notice of all demonstrations, which may not undermine public order. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have alleged that police who mistreat demonstrators have not been penalized equally with protestors under this law. In response to protests on Jeju Island in 2011, in September 2012, participants of the World Conservation Congress passed a resolution to block construction of a naval base there. Korea’s Ministry of Defense publicly criticized the resolution as being intrusive and infringing on sovereignty.

Human rights groups, social welfare organizations, and other NGOs are active and generally 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 diminished 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 verbally and physically abuse detainees. In 2012, a number of violent crimes against women and children reignited a debate over resuming the death penalty for heinous crimes. As of September, there were about 60 death row inmates, though no execution has taken place since December 1997. 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 have 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.

Although South Korean women enjoy legal equality, they face social and employment discrimination in practice. However, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling granted married women equal rights with respect to inheritance. Women continued to be underrepresented in government following the December 2012 elections, comprising just 15.7 percent of National Assembly seats. In November 2012, five new bills were passed to strengthen punishment for sex crimes, including raising maximum sentences to lifetime imprisonment, increasing public access to sex offender identities, removing statutes of limitations, and increasing the age range for chemical castration.