Freedom in the World
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South Korea’s democratic system features regular rotations of power and robust political pluralism, with the two largest parties representing conservative and liberal views. Personal freedoms are generally respected, though the country continues to struggle with minority rights and social integration, especially for North Korean defectors, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people, and immigrants. The population is also subject to legal bans on pro–North Korean activity, which have sometimes been invoked to curb legitimate political expression.
- In April legislative elections, the liberal opposition Minjoo Party won an upset victory, narrowly edging out the ruling conservative Saenuri Party.
- A scandal that broke in October revealed corruption and extensive interference in state affairs by Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend of President Park Geun-hye.
- In response, protests calling for Park’s resignation ensued across the country, and the National Assembly voted in December to impeach her. The Constitutional Court was considering the matter at year’s end.
The Minjoo Party’s narrow defeat of the Saenuri Party in April 2016 legislative elections was seen as a rebuke of Park Geun-hye’s performance as president, with voters acting on frustration over a sluggish economy, a growing number of corruption scandals, allegations of abuse of power, mounting tensions with North Korea, and the imposition of a new antiterrorism law that could be used to limit political dissent.
In October, the media exposed a scandal surrounding the relationship between Park and her close friend Choi Soon-sil. The president had allegedly allowed Choi to access confidential information and exploit her friendship to influence government affairs and extort money and favors from third parties. Choi was arrested, and multiple investigations were under way at year’s end.
Park initially issued two public apologies for her misconduct, replaced officials who had come under suspicion, and nominated a new prime minister, though the National Assembly quickly rejected her choice, leaving incumbent Hwang Kyo-ahn in office.
Protests calling for Park’s resignation or impeachment steadily grew in size, and the National Assembly ultimately voted to impeach her in early December. Executive authority was transferred to the prime minister pending a Constitutional Court review of the charges against Park. A decision was due within 180 days, after which either a presidential election would be held or Park’s powers would be restored.
The 1988 constitution vests executive power in a directly elected president, who is limited to a single five-year term. In the 2012 presidential election, Park of the Saenuri Party defeated Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate Moon Jae-in, 52 percent to 48 percent, to become the first female president of the Republic of Korea.
The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 300 members serving four-year terms. In the April 2016 legislative elections, the Minjoo Party (formerly the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, or NPAD) won 123 seats, while Saenuri won only 122. The centrist People’s Party won 38 seats, and minor parties and independents secured the remaining 17 seats. Although liberal and centrist opposition parties won a total of 167 seats, they failed to gain the 180-seat supermajority needed to pass major reform legislation.
In December 2016, the National Assembly voted—234 to 56—to impeach Park based on 13 allegations of misconduct stemming from the Choi scandal, handing the case over to the Constitutional Court for review. Presidential authority was transferred to the prime minister pending the court’s decision.
Political pluralism is robust, with multiple parties competing for power and succeeding one another in government. The two dominant parties as of 2016 were the ruling conservative Saenuri Party and the liberal Minjoo Party, though party structures and coalitions are relatively fluid. In December 2016, after Park’s impeachment, the New Reform Conservative Party was established as the result of a split in Saenuri.
Only once, in December 2014, has a political party—the United Progressive Party—been dissolved by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that it violated the National Security Law, which bans pro–North Korean activities. Separately, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) has been implicated in a series of scandals in recent years, including allegations that it interfered in political affairs and sought to influence the 2012 election in Park’s favor.
Although ethnic minority citizens enjoy full political rights under the law, they rarely win political representation. Philippine-born Jasmine Lee of Saenuri lost her National Assembly seat in the 2016 elections, leaving no lawmakers of non-Korean ethnicity in the chamber.
Elected officials generally determine and implement state policy without undue interference from unelected entities and interests. However, despite government anticorruption efforts, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion persist in politics, business, and everyday life.
The controversial Kim Young-ran Act, which took effect in September 2016, establishes stiff punishments for those convicted of accepting bribes, and eliminates the need to prove a direct link between a gift and a favor to secure a conviction. The law targets government officials, but it is also applicable to spouses, journalists, and educators—roughly 4 million people. It sets strict limits on acceptable costs of meals and gifts if a conflict of interest is possible.
In October, a major corruption scandal revealed extensive collusion between President Park and her close friend Choi Soon-sil, who held no government office. Media and law enforcement investigations uncovered evidence that Park’s administration had shared confidential and even classified information with Choi, and that Choi used her relationship with Park to manipulate government affairs and extort money and favors from others, including major corporations. Choi was arrested, and a special prosecutor was assigned to the case. Park herself was immune from prosecution until formally removed from office by the Constitutional Court.
The news media are generally free and competitive. Newspapers are privately owned and report aggressively on government policies and allegations of official and corporate wrongdoing. Some forms of official censorship are legal, however. Under the National Security Law, listening to North Korean radio is illegal, as is posting pro-North messages online; authorities have deleted tens of thousands of posts deemed to be pro-North, drawing accusations that the law’s broadly written provisions are being used to circumscribe political expression. Journalists at major news outlets have faced political interference from managers or the government. Under the Park administration, there was more liberal use of defamation charges against government critics, with possible punishments of up to seven years in prison. Nevertheless, the media reported extensively on the Choi scandal during 2016.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and it is respected in practice.
Academic freedom is mostly unrestricted, though the National Security Law limits statements supporting the North Korean regime or communism. In addition, the new anticorruption law subjects public and private school teachers and administrators to the same oversight as public officials, potentially exposing educators to increased government influence or intimidation. In late 2015, the Park administration announced its decision to require middle and high schools to use history textbooks produced by an official institute, rather than choosing from a variety of options. However, the Ministry of Education reversed the requirement after Park’s impeachment in 2016.
Private discussion is typically free and open, and 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. In March 2016, a new antiterrorism law was adopted after an eight-day filibuster attempt by the opposition. The legislation grants the NIS expanded authority to conduct wiretaps, and its vague definition of “terrorism” raised concerns that it would enable the agency to monitor government critics, particularly online.
The government generally respects freedoms of assembly and association, which are protected under the constitution. However, several legal provisions conflict with these principles, creating tension between the police and protesters over the application of the law. For instance, the Law on Assembly and Demonstration prohibits activities that might cause social unrest, and 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. In the wake of sometimes violent antigovernment protests in 2015, a June 2016 report from the UN special rapporteur on freedoms of assembly and association criticized South Korean police tactics that increased the risk of clashes and injuries at protests, including excessive use of water cannons and bus barricades.
Police and protesters largely avoided serious confrontations during a series of major political protests that began in July 2016—when the government announced plans to deploy a controversial U.S. missile-defense system on South Korean soil—and peaked ahead of Park’s impeachment in December.
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 as the employment of temporary workers increases. Several unionists remained in detention during 2016 after facing charges for the labor-related political protests in 2015, and the president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was sentenced to five years in prison in July 2016—reduced to three years on appeal in December—for offenses linked to the protest violence. In late September, Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union affiliates began a strike against new labor guidelines that allowed for workers to be fired more easily, among other provisions. An October strike of more than 7,000 owner-operators in the trucking industry against plans to deregulate the transport sector was declared illegal by the government, leading to dozens of arrests.
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent. Judges render verdicts in all cases. While there is no trial by jury, an advisory jury system has been in place since 2008, and judges largely respect juries’ decisions. Reports of beatings or intimidation by guards in South Korea’s prisons are infrequent.
The country’s few ethnic minorities encounter 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. A 2016 report by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea found that children of foreign-born residents in South Korea suffer from racial discrimination and systemic exclusion from the education and medical systems. It is estimated that there are some 20,000 stateless children residing in South Korea.
There were roughly 30,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea at the end of 2016. Defectors are eligible for South Korean citizenship, but they can face months of detention and interrogations upon arrival, and some have reported abuse in custody and societal discrimination. In March 2016, the National Assembly passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which created transparent guidelines to safeguard the human rights of current and former North Korean citizens. It establishes a Human Rights Advisory Committee within the Ministry of Unification to develop a long-term plan addressing human rights dialogue and humanitarian assistance, and a Human Rights Foundation to conduct policy research on these topics and provide support to NGOs working on North Korean human rights issues.
Same-sex sexual relations are generally legal, and the law bars discrimination based on sexual orientation, but transgender people are not specifically protected, and societal discrimination against LGBT people persists. In July 2016, the Constitutional Court upheld a provision of the Military Criminal Act that bans sexual acts between male soldiers.
Travel both within South Korea and abroad is unrestricted, though travel to North Korea requires government approval. South Korea fully recognizes property rights and has a well-developed body of laws governing the establishment of commercial enterprises, though the economy remains dominated by large family-owned conglomerates that have been accused of collusion with political figures, as evidenced in the Choi scandal.
South Korean women have 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, and continue to be underrepresented in government. According to the World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, South Korea ranks 116 out of 144 countries in terms of gender parity. In January 2016, as part of an effort to combat domestic violence, the government proposed stronger penalties for stalking, including up to two years in prison rather than the small fine prescribed under current law.
In May 2016, the first lawsuit seeking recognition of same-sex marriage was rejected by a district court, which upheld the definition of marriage under the Act on Family Registration as a union between different sexes.
Foreign migrant workers are vulnerable to debt bondage and forced labor, including forced prostitution. Korean women and foreign women recruited by international marriage brokers can also become sex-trafficking victims. Although the government actively prosecutes human trafficking cases, those convicted often receive light punishments.