South Korea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Korea

South Korea

Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

South Korea’s political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to high-profile scandals involving corruption and abuse of authority, including alleged meddling in political affairs by the National Intelligence Service.



In February 2013, Park Geun-hye was inaugurated as South Korea’s first female president. Park is the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, who assumed office in 1963 after a military coup. She also served as first lady under her father after the assassination of her mother in 1974. While she has acknowledged the human rights abuses perpetrated under her father’s rule, she is still criticized for his legacy. Her inauguration came soon after North Korea’s third nuclear weapons test, forcing her to demonstrate early on how she would implement her “trustpolitik” approach to North Korea. This approach, combining deterrence and trust building between the two Koreas, was tested repeatedly throughout the year.

After nearly a year of investigations, state prosecutors announced in November that agents from the National Intelligence Service (NIS), the country’s spy agency, had posted more than 1.2 million “tweets” the previous year in a clandestine online campaign to try to help Park win the 2012 presidential election. The tweets praised Park and ridiculed opposition rivals. Prosecutors did not say what impact the campaign had on the election results; Park won by only 1 million votes. The opposition Democratic Party held a series of rallies demanding an apology from Park and calling for the dismissal of Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, a political appointee of Park’s, for lack of impartiality, though he remained in office at year’s end.  

In March, South Korea, China, and Japan began the first round of negotiations for a trilateral free-trade agreement. The same month, the annual joint U.S.–Republic of Korea training exercises included a flyover of U.S. B-52 bombers to reaffirm the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” over South Korea. North Korea responded by threatening to abandon the armistice agreement and cut the hotline to the South. At the end of the month, tensions had risen to dangerous levels. North Korea declared a “state of war” against the South and threatened nuclear attack against the United States. The United States responded by bolstering defense forces in the region.

In April, North Korea denied entry by South Koreans to the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), and recalled all 53,000 North Korean workers. The KIC is an inter-Korean economic cooperation project that has historically continued to function regardless of the political climate on the peninsula. South Korean staff stayed on for a short period, but were all withdrawn by early May. Several rounds of talks took place starting in July, when political tensions began to thaw, and operations at the KIC were resumed in September.

In December, the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) led thousands of workers on a strike against the possible privatization of the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL). Tensions between strike leaders and the government escalated to the point of mass arrests, but a political agreement led most strikers to return to work by year’s end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 35 / 40 (-1) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 11 / 12

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.

In the April 2012 National Assembly elections, the ruling conservative Saenuri Party won 152 seats, while the liberal Democratic United Party—later renamed the Democratic Party—took 127 seats. The United Progressive Party captured 13 seats, the Liberty Forward Party took 5, and independent candidates won 3. In that December’s presidential election, Park of the Saenuri Party defeated DUP candidate and former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, 52 percent to 48 percent.

In April 2013, two new voting systems came into effect. One was early voting, intended to expand electoral participation, which was launched in by-elections that month. Voters were able to show up at a polling station during the early voting period and cast their ballots without applying in advance. The other was a new integrated voter register, which allowed voters to cast their ballots simply by showing their identification cards at any polling station across the country, regardless of their home district.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 14 / 16 (-1)

Political pluralism is robust, with multiple parties competing for power. Although party structures and coalitions are relatively fluid, the two dominant parties during 2013 were the ruling Saenuri and the opposition Democratic Party.

In order to restrict the power of the ruling party, under the 2012 National Assembly Advancement Act, a three-fifths majority is required to bring closely contested bills from standing committees to the plenum for a floor vote.

Given that Park won the 2012 presidential election by a narrow margin, investigations into the NIS-led online campaign have led some observers to question whether such activity harmed the country’s electoral process. Charges have been filed against Won Sei-hoon, former NIS chief; Lee Jong-myung, former third deputy director of the NIS; Min Byung-joon, director of psychological intelligence; and six other officials. Kim Yong-pan, former chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police, was also indicted in June for obstruction of the police investigation.  


C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12

Despite anticorruption efforts by the government, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion persist in politics, business, and everyday life. In July 2013, Won Sei-hoon, the former NIS director, was arrested on bribery charges. He was charged with accepting cash, gold, and other gifts totaling 150 million won ($135,000) from the head of a construction company since 2009 in exchange for helping the company win construction projects.

In another case, investigations begun in May revealed that substandard parts and fabricated testing certificates had been supplied to nuclear power plants, which led to the shutdown of two reactors. The investigation also resulted in criminal charges against close to 100 high-ranking officials linked to the nuclear power industry. These included the former vice minister of knowledge economy Park Young-joon, who was indicted in September for receiving 60 million won ($54,000) in bribes from a local contractor to help Hankook Jungsoo Industries win a contract from the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) under a deal to build a nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates. Park had already been jailed for a separate corruption charge. Also indicted was Kim Jong-shin, former president of the state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, for receiving 130 million won ($117,000) for steering business to Hankook Jungsoo Industries.

In March, an investigation began into several influential figures, including Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-ui, in relation to allegations that they received sex services from women hired by a local construction contractor who sought business favors in 2009. Although he resigned from his post, Kim was cleared of charges in November for lack of evidence.

The Park administration has launched a series of reforms of key government agencies including the National Tax Service, the Board of Audit and Inspection, and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to help address pervasive corruption. In April, the administration eliminated the Central Investigation Division (CID) of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, which reportedly had a long record of corruption problems and whose neutrality had been doubted. In September, the ruling and opposition parties agreed to reestablish the National Integrity Commission to facilitate full-scale anticorruption efforts. However, the National Assembly’s special committee on judicial reform has failed to reach an agreement on several key issues, including the establishment of a special investigator’s office.  South Korea was ranked 46 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.


Civil Liberties: 50 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 14 / 16

The news media are generally free and competitive. Newspapers are privately owned and report aggressively on government policies and alleged official and corporate wrongdoing. However, although media censorship is illegal, official censorship, particularly of online content, increased during Lee Myung-bak’s 2008–13 presidency. 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 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 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.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Academic freedom is unrestricted, though the National Security Law limits statements supporting the North Korean regime or communism.

The government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy. A wiretap law sets the conditions under which the government may monitor telephone calls, mail, and e-mail.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12

South Korea respects freedoms of assembly and association, which are protected under the constitution. However, several other legal provisions conflict with these principles, creating tension between the police and protesters over the application of the law. For instance, Article 3 of the Law on Assembly and Demonstration prohibits activities that might cause social unrest. Police must be notified of all demonstrations. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have alleged that police who mistreat demonstrators have not been penalized equally with protesters under this law.

Under the Act on Electric Source Development, Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) can expropriate land for electric installation. KEPCO and residents of Miryang in South Gyeongsang Province have been in conflict for the past eight years over the construction of high-voltage transmission towers. When KEPCO resumed construction at five sites in the area in October, a few hundred protesters, mostly in their 70s and 80s, demonstrated. Clashes ensued with 2,000 riot police stationed at the five sites, causing at least three injuries.

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, as is the global trend, especially as the employment of temporary workers increases. In October, the government revoked the legal status of the Korean Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Union (KTU), after the union refused to revise a provision regarding union membership (the administration offered KTU one month to change its bylaws). KTU allows retired and dismissed workers to keep union membership, which is an internationally accepted practice.

For 22 days in December, railway workers went on strike to protest the government’s plans to create a subsidiary company (Suseo KTX Corporation) under the state-run KORAIL to operate the Suseo High Speed Railway—a step the workers said could lead to privatization. Tensions between railway workers and the government escalated quickly, as KORAIL fired thousands of striking unionists and filed complaints against strike leaders, and the government declared the strike illegal. On December 22, 600 police officers raided the headquarters of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) to arrest nine KRWU leaders, but ended up arresting 136 KCTU officials and members who resisted the police. This led to a general strike rally in Seoul organized by the KCTU, where tens of thousands gathered to speak out against the government. The KORAIL strike ended on December 30, as Saenuri and Democratic lawmakers held talks and agreed to form a subcommittee on railway development to address the issues raised by the strike.


F. Rule of Law: 13 / 16

South Korea’s judiciary is generally considered to be independent. Judges render verdicts in all cases; while there is no trial by jury, there has been an advisory jury system since 2008, and judges generally respect juries’ decisions. Although 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. In March 2013, an activist with the Catholic Human Rights Commission filed a constitutional appeal arguing that the overcrowding of jails was a violation of human dignity.

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. Same-sex intercourse is legal, but same-sex marriage is not. Such relationships are gaining acceptance but still largely hidden. A celebrity couple symbolically held a wedding in October to challenge public views on same-sex marriage.  In March, the Seoul Western District Court ruled that transgender individuals can legally change their gender without having reassignment surgery, as an earlier decision had required.

Comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation was proposed in February 2013 that would prohibit discrimination based on religion, political ideology, or sexual orientation. Facing fierce opposition from conservatives, it was withdrawn in April. This marked the third attempt since 2007 to introduce an antidiscrimination act in the National Assembly.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 12 / 16

Travel both within South Korea and abroad is unrestricted, except for travel to North Korea, which requires government approval.

Although South Korean women enjoy legal equality and a 2005 Supreme Court ruling granted married women equal rights with respect to inheritance, women face social and employment discrimination in practice. Women continued to be underrepresented in government following the December 2012 elections, holding just 15.7 percent of National Assembly seats. The Park administration’s emphasis on fighting sex crimes and protecting victims’ rights led to revisions of the sex-crime laws in June and bolstering of police sex-crime units. Some features of the new laws include a redefinition of potential victims of sex crimes to include men, a lifting of the statute of limitations for several types of cases, and harsher punishments for offenders. In addition, people accused of sex offenses can now be investigated and prosecuted without a direct complaint from the victim; third-party reports can be accepted as grounds to start an official investigation.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology