Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World Scores
South Korea’s democratic system features regular rotations of power and robust political pluralism, with the largest parties representing conservative and liberal views. Personal freedoms are generally respected, though the country struggles with minority rights and social integration. Legal bans on pro–North Korean activity have sometimes affected legitimate political expression.
Key Developments in 2017:
- In March, the Constitutional Court formally removed President Park Geun-hye from office, upholding the National Assembly’s decision in December 2016 to impeach her over an extensive corruption scandal.
- Park was indicted on charges including bribery and abuse of office in April, and her trial, which began in May, was ongoing at year’s end.
- A snap presidential election in May resulted in a smooth transfer of power to Moon Jae-in of the liberal Minjoo Party, who ran on a platform of rooting out corruption and restoring civil and political rights.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 33 / 40 (+1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 11 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The 1988 constitution vests executive power in a directly elected president, who is limited to a single five-year term. In March 2017, the eight justices of the Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye for “acts that violated the constitution and laws.” She was immediately removed from office, though Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn had been serving as acting president since the National Assembly’s impeachment vote in December.
In keeping with constitutional procedure, a snap presidential election was held in May. Moon Jae-in of the liberal Minjoo Party won with 41 percent of the vote, followed by Hong Jun-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (formerly the Saenuri Party) with 24 percent and Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party with 21 percent. About 77 percent of registered voters turned out for the election.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 300 members serving four-year terms, with 253 elected in single-member constituencies and 47 through national party lists. In the April 2016 elections, the Minjoo Party won 123 seats, while the Saenuri Party won 122. The People’s Party took 38 seats, and minor parties and independents secured the remaining 17 seats.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
Elections are managed by the National Election Commission, an independent nine-member body appointed for six-year terms. Three members are chosen by the president, three by the National Assembly, and three by the Supreme Court.
While elections are generally considered free and fair, National Assembly constituencies have historically been affected by malapportionment, giving outsized voting power to thinly populated rural areas. A revised map adopted for the 2016 elections mitigated the problem, in keeping with a 2014 Constitutional Court ruling, though the largest constituency population can still be twice the size of the smallest.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 13 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4
Political pluralism is robust, with multiple parties competing for power, though party structures and coalitions are rather fluid. In addition to the two main parties, several smaller groups are represented in the National Assembly, as are a handful of unaffiliated members. Only once has the Constitutional Court legally dissolved a political party—the United Progressive Party in 2014—for violations of the National Security Law, which bans pro–North Korean activities.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
There have been multiple transfers of power between rival conservative and liberal parties since the early 1990s, and the orderly election and inauguration of President Moon in May 2017 reinforced this democratic pattern.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
Family-controlled business empires known as chaebol dominate the country’s economy and have amassed significant political influence, which generally enables them to protect their interests despite calls for reform.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) has been implicated in a series of scandals in recent years, including allegations that it sought to influence the 2012 presidential election and later conducted illegal surveillance targeting Park’s opponents.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
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. Women also enjoy legal equality but remain underrepresented, with just 17 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Conservative Christian groups have used their political influence to prevent legislators from adopting stronger laws that would protect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people from discrimination.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 9 / 12 (+1)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Elected officials generally determine and implement state policy without undue interference from unelected entities and interests.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4 (+1)
Despite government anticorruption efforts, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion persist in politics, business, and everyday life. The Kim Young-ran Act, or Improper Solicitation and Graft Act, establishes stiff punishments for those convicted of accepting bribes. The law applies to government officials as well as their spouses, journalists, and educators. In a survey of 300 domestic companies released in October 2017, 74 percent said the business environment had improved since the law went into force in 2016.
Former president Park was arrested in March 2017 and formally indicted in April on charges including bribery, extortion, and abuse of office. Her trial began in May and was ongoing at year’s end, though she refused to appear for hearings or cooperate with state-appointed defense lawyers after her detention was extended in October and her original legal team resigned in protest.
Choi Soon-sil, Park’s friend and main coconspirator, was sentenced in June to three years in prison for using her political influence to obtain special treatment for her daughter from university officials; Choi was still facing additional charges. Several other people from Park’s administration and its partners in the private sector have been convicted of related crimes. Lee Jae-young, heir to the Samsung conglomerate, was sentenced in August to five years in prison for paying $7.8 million in bribes to secure Park’s support for a business deal that strengthened his control over Samsung Electronics.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 due to the prosecution of corrupt acts committed under the Park administration.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4
The investigations surrounding Park’s impeachment illuminated extensive collusion between Park and Choi that also involved business conglomerates and the national pension fund, among other entities, affecting government decision-making on a variety of topics. In 2017, President Moon vowed greater transparency in his administration and pledged to reform the NIS, whose power was found to have been abused in many cases under the Lee Myung-bak and Park presidencies.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 51 / 60 (+1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16 (+1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
The news media are generally free and competitive, reporting aggressively on government policies and allegations of official and corporate wrongdoing. News coverage or commentary that is deemed to favor North Korea can be censored and lead to prosecution under the National Security Law. A defamation law authorizes sentences of up to seven years in prison, encouraging a certain degree of self-censorship. Journalists at major news outlets have also faced political interference from managers or the government. Despite these constraints, the media have provided extensive coverage of Park’s impeachment process and related corruption scandals.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Academic freedom is mostly unrestricted, though the National Security Law limits statements supporting the North Korean regime. The 2016 anticorruption law subjects teachers and administrators to the same tight restrictions as public officials. In 2017, President Moon withdrew a controversial set of state-published history textbooks that Park’s administration had developed in a failed bid to replace the existing selection of privately published texts, which it accused of having a left-wing bias.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4 (+1)
Private discussion is typically free and open, and the government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy. A 2016 antiterrorism law granted the NIS expanded authority to monitor private communications, and its vague definition of “terrorism” raised concerns that it would enable the agency to track government critics, particularly online. The National Security Law restricts speech that is considered pro–North Korean. However, a pattern of increased surveillance, investigation, and prosecution of online speech during Park’s tenure appeared to ease after her impeachment. For example, the overall number of arrests under the National Security Law decreased from 21 in 2016 to 7 in 2017.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to an apparent decrease in the investigation and punishment of online speech under the new administration.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
The government generally respects freedom of assembly, which is protected under the constitution. However, several legal provisions conflict with this guarantee, creating tension between the police and protesters over the application of the law.
After the Park-Choi scandal broke in 2016, large protests were organized in the streets of Seoul every weekend, and most proceeded without incident. Demonstrations continued until Park’s impeachment was upheld by the Constitutional Court in March 2017. Smaller pro-Park rallies were also held without incident. Protests opposed to the installation of a new U.S. missile-defense system have been common since 2016. In September 2017, police clashed with participants in one such protest, causing injuries to about three dozen demonstrators.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4
Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations are active and generally operate freely, though they have occasionally faced political pressure when they criticize the government or other powerful interests. In August 2017, after a three-year legal battle, the Supreme Court affirmed an LGBT advocacy foundation’s right to register as a charity; the Seoul city government, the National Human Rights Commission, and the Justice Ministry had each refused the group’s application.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
The country’s independent labor unions advocate for 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. In September 2017, journalism unions organized strikes by over 3,000 journalists to protest against attacks on editorial independence as well as unfair labor practices at the two main public broadcasters, and to call for the resignations of their chief executives.
F. RULE OF LAW: 13 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent. The chief justice and justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. The justices are appointed based on recommendations from the chief justice, who is assisted by an expert advisory committee. The chief justice is also responsible for appointments to the lower courts, with the consent of the other Supreme Court justices. The president, the National Assembly, and the chief justice each nominate three members of the Constitutional Court.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
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. The courts have sometimes been accused of denying due process and impartiality to defendants in National Security Law cases.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Reports of abuse by guards in South Korea’s prisons are infrequent, and prison conditions generally meet international standards. Violent crime is relatively rare, but the country is still technically at war with North Korea, resulting in a heavy military presence in some areas and the constant threat of renewed combat. Minor incidents of violence near the de facto border are not uncommon.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
South Korea lacks a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. 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. Children of foreign-born residents in South Korea suffer from systemic exclusion from the education and medical systems. There are about 31,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea. Defectors are eligible for citizenship, but they can face months of detention and interrogations upon arrival, and some have reported abuse in custody and societal discrimination.
Women generally enjoy legal equality but face social and employment discrimination in practice. Sexual harassment of women in the workplace is common. In November 2017, a high-profile case in which a female employee reported sexual assault by male colleagues and accused her employer of covering up the incident prompted other women to report abuse by their employers. The Labor Ministry noted a sharp increase in reports of workplace sexual harassment and assault, from 556 in 2016 to well over 2,000 in 2017, though only nine suspects had been indicted as of late November. A revised gender equality law adopted by the National Assembly that month established harsher punishments for employers that cover up offenses or fail to provide training.
Same-sex sexual relations are generally legal, and the law bars discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, there are no specific penalties for such discrimination, and transgender people are not protected as such. A “disgraceful conduct” provision of the Military Criminal Act is used to punish sexual acts between male soldiers, and the rule was aggressively enforced during 2017.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 13 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Travel both within South Korea and abroad is unrestricted, except for travel to North Korea, which requires government approval. School is free for children between the ages of 6 and 15, but senior high schools charge modest tuition fees, and many families spend heavily on private academies to supplement public education. Individuals can change jobs freely, though the leading business conglomerates tend to focus their recruitment on graduates of specific universities.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
South Korea fully recognizes property rights and has a well-developed body of laws governing the establishment of commercial enterprises. However, the economy remains dominated by large family-owned conglomerates that have been accused of collusion with political figures.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Women generally have equal rights in divorce and custody matters. Marriage and other forms of legal partnership are not available to same-sex partners. Abortion is considered a crime punishable with imprisonment except in cases of rape, incest, threats to the mother’s health, or designated disorders or diseases; all abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy are prohibited. In July 2017, a widely disseminated video of a man beating his ex-girlfriend led to a 100-day police action campaign to combat violence against women. A Korean Institute of Criminology survey released in August showed that almost 80 percent of the 2,000 male respondents had physically or psychologically abused a girlfriend while they were dating. A survey by the Korea Women’s Hotline similarly reported that nearly 62 percent of female respondents said they had been abused while dating.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
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.