Democracy and rights
Abbreviated as SKR by Abbreviationfinder, South Korea is a democratic state and respect for political and civil rights is generally good. The media can operate freely and are active in the scrutiny of those in power. The judiciary is considered to function well and has an independent position. At the same time, human rights organizations believe that the National Security Act imposes restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly.
South Korea held its first truly democratic elections only in 1987, after several years when the country was ruled by military dictatorships (see Modern History). Today, international observers believe that the general elections held for the presidential and parliamentary elections are conducted in correct and fair forms.
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There are multiparty systems and the residents can form and become members of political parties. There are many NGOs and the constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and association. Demonstrations are common.
At the same time, human rights organizations and experts believe that the country’s national security law sometimes limits basic freedoms and rights. The law prohibits “hostile activities” (mainly left-wing political statements) and what is considered to benefit North Korea as well as contacts with North Koreans without the government’s permission. Holding banned books or listening to North Korean radio has led to arrests.
The Security Act also restricts freedom of assembly and trade union activities. The law led in 2014 to the Constitutional Court dissolving a political party because the party’s statute was judged to sympathize with North Korea’s state ideology. The rulers have been criticized for using the Security Act on their own political purposes.
In 2005, a Truth Commission was formed to investigate events during the Korean War of 1950–1953, when hundreds of thousands of civilian South Koreans were killed or “disappeared”. A large part of these were suspected Communists and left-wing sympathizers. Following an initial report on, among other things, mass graves with executed people, President Roh Moo-Hyun publicly apologized for “the illegal acts carried out by the authorities of the time”. There are estimated to be about 160 mass graves.
South Korea has also been criticized by human rights organizations for allowing people who, because of their religious beliefs, to renounce military service, may receive prison sentences. South Korea has been criticized for not being able to do non-military military duty.
The country’s minorities have the same political rights as the South Koreans at large. At the same time, they are underrepresented in political positions. The same goes for women, after the 2016 parliamentary elections, only 17 percent of MPs were women and the pay gap between men and women is among the largest among the world’s most economically developed countries.
Freedom of expression and media
During the military rule 1961–1987, freedom of expression was severely limited. New press laws subsequently strengthened freedom of speech and now, in principle, free opinion formation. Many scandals and corruption deals among the tops of society and business have been revealed by active editors over the years.
However, security legislation (see above) still allows authorities to censor news related to North Korea. It also happens that journalists who report on political corruption are monitored, pressured and imprisoned. There are indications that advocacy processes initiated following criticism of the government and the president have increased in recent years. According to the law, violations of the law can be punished with imprisonment for seven years, which encourages self-censorship among journalists. Press freedom activists have called on South Korea to change the legislation.
Nevertheless, since the country in 2017, a new president, former human rights advocate and political prisoner Moon Jae-In (see Current Politics), has risen several places on Reporters Without Borders list of press freedom in the world countries (see ranking list here). Prior to that, according to the organization, freedom of the press in the country had greatly deteriorated during the last decade, which showed that the country fell to 30 places.
Authorities and holders of power have made efforts to limit corruption. For example, there has been a new law against corruption since 2016 that, among other things, limits the gifts that public officials, teachers and journalists receive. There is also a Commission for Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights, established in 2008, which will, among other things, examine the business practices of companies.
At the same time, criticism among South Koreans against the corruption in society has increased in recent years.
Experts and researchers have argued that the close relations between politicians and large corporations, so-called chaebol, constitute a breeding ground for corruption. Executives and others in corporate management have been involved in many corruption deals over the years, but it has often escaped punishment because of its links with politicians and employees in the judiciary. Politicians have often been criticized for looking through the fingers of corporate corruption because the large business conglomerates have had such a significant impact on the country’s economic development.
Almost all former presidents of South Korea have been involved in corruption scandals linked to bribery from big corporations, according to the Freedom House report 2018, not least the former President Park Geun-Hye, who was brought before national law and was forced to leave the presidential post 2017 after an extensive corruption harassment revealed in autumn 2016 (see Current policy). Park Geun-Hye has been sentenced to spend many years in prison as well as former President Lee Myung-Bak. He was sentenced in 2018 to a 15-year prison sentence for bribery and embezzlement.
In 2018, Transparency International ranked South Korea in 45 of 180 countries.
Judicial system and legal security
According to the Constitution, the judicial system must be distinguished from the executive and the legislative power. According to human rights evaluations, the judicial system is also independent and impartial.
South Korea still has the death penalty but has not carried out any executions since 1997. Torture and torture of prisoners was common into the 1990s. The situation has improved since then, but criticism has been directed at inhumane punishments and the treatment of prisoners.