South Korea has often been touted as a democratic and economic miracle. After decades of authoritarianism, it transitioned into a consolidated democracy and a technologically advanced, economic powerhouse in the past three decades. In recent months, the country has received international praise for its successful tackling of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet South Korean presidents’ desire to advance their goals vis-à-vis North Korea and the legacy of authoritarianism, especially the centralization of power in the presidency, have led to uneven applications of liberal democratic functions and, at times, egregious examples of abuse and rights violations. President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, seemed to offer a break from the previous decade of conservative rule during which the Cold War-era National Security Law was invoked to quash pro-North Korea sentiment and punish any critic of then-Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Moon, however, has used his power to dampen anti-North speech and activities to support his pro-engagement policy toward Pyongyang, undermining his domestic policy goals — such as taming corruption and inequality — while making little headway in relations with an intransigent Kim regime. Progress on strengthening South Korea’s democratic institutions will take time and political will, but in the meanwhile, Moon can take small steps toward those longer-term goals by changing his approach to North Korean human rights and defector groups, empowering civic organizations, and setting the foundations for principled and sustainable policies.
With the world still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, few countries get as much positive attention for successfully managing it than South Korea. Not only did President Moon Jae-in’s administration show what effective governance, technology and science, and expert-driven policies can accomplish in protecting public health, Seoul also showed that it could safely hold national legislative elections, even as Britain, France, and almost 20 U.S. states postponed votes. An impressive two-thirds of South Korea’s eligible voters turned out during the pandemic and delivered a supermajority for the ruling party. The Washington Post, among other media, lauded South Korea for showing the world how “free, fair, and safe elections” can be done, even during a pandemic.
Each South Korean president’s goals vis-à-vis relations with North Korea, as well as the centralization of power in the position itself, cast shadows on Seoul’s policy choices.
Even as South Korea was being touted as a beacon of democracy in global media, the Moon administration has been criticized by domestic observers and international organizations, including the United Nations, for its illiberal practices related to North Korean defectors and human rights advocates in the country. A democracy since the late 1980s, South Korea still bears the weight of previous military regimes’ legal and institutional legacies that continue to hamper consistent application of liberal democratic functions. In particular, each South Korean president’s goals vis-à-vis relations with North Korea, as well as the centralization of power in the position itself, cast shadows on Seoul’s policy choices. While conservative presidents had generally cracked down on any whiff of pro-North sentiment, citing the notorious National Security Law, a relic of the Cold War and South Korea’s anti-communism often deployed to silence pro-democracy entities, Moon’s progressive government has flipped the script, aiming to squelch opposition to his pro-engagement policy toward Pyongyang.
The “People’s President”
From October 2016 to March 2017, hundreds of thousands of South Korean citizens — families, young adults, the elderly, schoolchildren — gathered every weekend in Seoul demanding President Park Geun-hye’s resignation for charges of graft. While corruption scandals that marked the Park administration were the initial cause of these “candlelight protests,” decades of pent-up anger and resentment about deepening socioeconomic inequality, harsh labor conditions and lack of benefits for temporary jobs, long working hours, and low quality of life bubbled up to the surface. In 2016, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked South Korea 28th among 38 countries in its quality of life index report; it fell further to 29th in 2017.
For South Koreans who protested in the streets for months against the corruption of Park, the daughter of one of South Korea’s dictators, seen as aloof and out of touch — and ultimately impeached and removed from office in March 2017 — Moon Jae-in was seen as a breath of fresh air. Among 13 candidates, Moon won a commanding 41% of the vote, with a 17-point lead over the runner-up. An astonishing 77% of eligible voters cast their ballots. At the time, international observers pronounced the exuberant and peaceful candlelight protests as a “democratic miracle” and wrote that South Korea “showed the world how to do democracy.”
Moon Jae-in entered office in May 2017 promising to reform the chaebols, or conglomerates, that dominate the social, economic, and political landscape in South Korea, improve working conditions and hours, and increase the minimum wage. A civil and human rights lawyer who had been jailed for his pro-democracy activism during the country’s authoritarian rule, the progressive Moon said he would be a “president for the people.”
In a prescient article, Alexis Dudden, a U.S. historian of modern Korea, celebrated the successes of the candlelight protests in ousting the sitting president and showing that no one is above the law. But she also warned that, “South Koreans will find it challenging in the coming years to keep attention trained on what they want for their country and for the broader Korea because the North Korean vortex will likely define Moon’s presidency.” Indeed, driven by a desire to “take an audacious step” toward an end of the Korean War declaration and the signing of a peace treaty — and undoubtedly alarmed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s apparent lack of concern about South Korea’s security during the “fire and fury” threats in late 2017 that many feared would spiral into a military conflict — Moon has elevated rapprochement with Pyongyang as a top priority. He has also resolved to use the powers of the presidency toward that goal, even if it meant the selective tamping down of civil liberties in his own country.
The lure of progress with North Korea
The same abuses of power that was rife under President Park Geun-hye proved their stickiness in the Moon administration, in what political scientists Aram Hur and Andrew Yeo call the “democratic ceiling” in South Korea. Much like his predecessors, President Moon’s tenure has been rocked by scandals, including a reported intervention by top presidential Blue House officials to help one of Moon’s friends become mayor of a southeastern city and graft charges and ethics violations against Moon’s close ally Cho Kuk, who was appointed as minister of justice in September 2019 and resigned a month later. The Cho scandal drew massive crowds to oppose his appointment. Additional allegations that Cho and his wife forged documents to help their daughter get admission into medical school enraged young people who were already sensitive to economic inequality and unfair advantages enjoyed by the elite, and they directed their ire at Moon for covering up for Cho, whom they called a hypocrite.
Moon has also drawn criticism and protests for suppressing dissent, particularly from conservatives, continuing a cycle of recrimination and retaliation, and deepening the polarization of Korean politics. But what has drawn special attention from the international community has been Seoul’s cracking down of North Korean defector organizations and others who oppose Moon’s pro-engagement policy toward Pyongyang.
Fiercely protective of his goal of making inter-Korean progress during his single five-year term, Moon’s government has put intense pressure on non-governmental organizations and defector groups that focus on human rights in North Korea to mollify Kim Jong Un. In late 2018, the government cut funding for the North Korea Human Rights Foundation (established by law in 2016) by 93%, in part to sustain the summitry of that year. In October 2018, the South Korean government barred a veteran journalist who was a North Korean defector from covering the inter-Korean talks, reportedly to avoid irritating the North Korean regime. The incident spurred the International Press Institute, a global network of media executives and journalists, to write a letter to Moon stating, “We fear that the government has set a new precedent, and, in the future, it would attempt to silence any journalist who is critical of North Korea or the talks between the two countries.”
Since then, Seoul has stripped licenses of NGOs that conducted activities such as floating anti-regime leaflets into the North, raided offices and filed criminal complaints, and surveilled or detained activists, prompting these nongovernmental organizations to appeal to the United Nations for help. Activists told Reuters that Seoul’s investigations and withholding of funds have scared away donors, further hampering the organizations’ efforts to support defections and defector networks. A senior leader of the international organization Human Rights Watch stated that “South Korea should be standing up for its own principles” and that the Moon administration is at risk of “violating the rights they spent their entire careers trying to build up.” In December 2020, the Moon government passed a controversial bill that banned the sending of anti-North Korea leaflet balloons, sparking an outcry from civic groups, defectors, and international human rights organizations.
Progressive goals, like reining in the power and influence of chaebols and strengthening the social safety net, also fell to the wayside. Political scientist Robert Kelly observed that previous liberal presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun “lost themselves in trying for an elusive deal with Pyongyang,” and that Moon, too, appeared to be ignoring longstanding liberal domestic agenda items for an as-yet unrequited promise of inter-Korean reconciliation. Furthermore, Moon enlisted the chaebols for his North Korea project. Seeking to lure Kim Jong Un’s regime with economic carrots, Moon brought a group of business leaders, including the heads of four of South Korea’s biggest conglomerates — Samsung, SK, Hyundai, and LG — to the third inter-Korean summit in September 2018. Samsung’s leader at the time was a defendant in a bribery scandal during the Park administration, an inconvenient truth that the Blue House batted away, stating that it was a separate matter.
Meanwhile, the South Korean public viewed the economy as the most urgent issue. A poll from September 2018 showed Moon’s approval rating falling to a low of 49%, reflecting the respondents’ view that the Moon administration did little to improve the employment rate, check soaring real estate prices, or address other economic problems. Nevertheless, the Moon administration proposed multiple infrastructure projects, such as the inter-Korean railroad and rebuilding North Korea’s roads and ports, which would have cost tens of billions of dollars, according to expert and government estimates. Seoul’s actions also elicited concern in Washington, as policymakers there reportedly called South Korean companies and banks to remind them of the need for North Korea sanctions enforcement.
As one of Moon’s close advisers told the Voice of America in July 2020, “The peaceful management of inter-Korean relations is the number one priority for us, and human rights would come second.” Such sentiment was consistent with the administration’s position since Moon took power. A senior adviser said in January 2019, “North Korean defectors might not enjoy the same benefits that they enjoyed during the two previous conservative governments,” and emphasized that resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue was the top goal for Moon.
The president’s power
The attempts to marginalize and silence civil society organizations like the North Korea defector and human rights groups are both symptom and driver of a weakness in South Korean democracy, particularly the extreme centralization of power in the presidential Blue House. South Korean political scientist Choi Jang Jip argued that his country’s democracy lacks the systematic inclusion of societal actors in the policymaking process because of the overarching goals of economic development and national security, even at the cost of protecting individual rights. In the milieu of anti-communism and maintaining order, the progressive forces that drove the country’s pro-democracy movement in the 1980s did not embrace the concept of placing checks on government power to enhance individual rights and liberties. As a result, political parties were weak, underdeveloped and dependent on the personality of the president, the National Assembly continued to lack institutional autonomy as in the authoritarian era, and the judiciary saw its value through the lens of national security and economic development, often to the advantage of the wealthy and powerful.
The concentration of power in the Blue House has been rooted in South Korea for decades and has been reinforced regardless of which party is in power. Asia scholars Stephan Haggard and Jong-Sung You have observed that, “Governments on both the political right and left have placed limits on freedom of expression to contain political opposition, and constitutional, legal, and political checks have proven insufficient to stop them.” The progressive governments of Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) have prosecuted journalists and sought to neutralize conservative media. In 2012, Amnesty International issued a scathing condemnation of the conservative government of Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), for a “dramatic increase in the abuse of national security laws in a politically motivated attempt to silence debate.” And the Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) government’s application of the National Security Law to surveil, monitor, and crack down on critics, often implying that they are pro-North Korea subversives, elicited warnings from the United Nations Human Rights Council, Freedom House, and South Korean civic groups.
A corollary legacy of the military dictatorships of the past is the corruption stemming from the toxic partnership between the state and conglomerates, which impedes the advancement of pluralism and policies responsive to the people. Historians have well documented that South Korea’s economic “miracle” was grounded in the authoritarian practices of President Park Chung-hee — the impeached Park Geun-hye’s father — whose export-dominated policies and government incentives gave rise to the now household names such as Samsung and Hyundai, while violently suppressing unions and tolerated labor exploitation by the corporations.1
Over the years, these family-controlled conglomerates have amassed enormous political influence and have wielded that power to protect their interests despite persistent calls for reform. Every presidential administration since democratization has been implicated in bribery and corruption scandals, including the current Moon government, underscoring the difficulties of decoupling chaebol money from politics and policies. Unwillingness or inability to reform the chaebols leaves in place a system that propagates corruption, entrenches corporate power, and undermines good governance and democratic accountability. Choi Jang Jip averred that the chaebol “have proven a formidable obstacle for furthering the development of democracy, the wide application of the rule of law, and the liberalization and pluralization of civil society.” Frustrated by the lack of progress on chaebol reform under the Moon government, workers (again) took to the streets, given the absence of governance structures that mediate between civil society and government.
To their credit, Moon and his party have attempted to revise the Constitution, unsuccessfully in 2018 and again in 2020, to try to decentralize the power of the presidency, change the single five-year presidency to a four-year term with opportunity for a second term, lower the voting age, grant more autonomy to local governments, and delegate more authority to the prime minister, as well as to dismantle conditions that contribute to rampant corruption. Even though Moon said he would not personally benefit from these measures, the National Assembly scuttled the proposal, calling it “imperial” but also highlighting the sclerosis of the legislature and the polarization of politics. Moon has also worked to target and investigate corruption in the previous administration, but, as South Korean economist Park Sang-in noted, the administration has yet to produce and implement specific measures to curb the power the concentration of power and wealth. Yet, part of the reason for the persistence of the practice of tamping down on freedom of expression is their political utility for the presidents in managing opponents, especially since South Korean presidents have a single five-year term to establish their legacy.
Implications and recommendations
South Korea’s strong, centralized presidency, relatively unencumbered by legislative or judicial oversight — and dependent on the chaebols to deliver on promises of economic growth — has had negative implications for foreign policy. Choi Jang Jip has argued that the result of such a system is policymaking that is a “makeshift, short-sighted, and improvised process influenced by the president’s immediate policy concerns.”
A top-down, personalized foreign policy approach runs the risk of producing inconsistent policies from one administration to another. For example, Moon cast doubt on the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, which the previous government had agreed to install. He also threatened to withdraw from a military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, another product of the previous administration. The wide fluctuations in policies from one president to another have created concerns in Washington and elsewhere about the reliability and consistency of South Korea’s policies.
Indeed, Moon’s approach does not appear to be having the intended effect on Pyongyang. The consistent volley of anti-South rhetoric from the Kim regime, its refusal to accept Seoul’s humanitarian aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, and destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office in June 2020 all strongly suggest that Moon’s conciliatory approach is not working.
Moon’s attempts to silence civil society voices, especially on human rights issues, might be fueling Kim’s perception that he can coerce Seoul to comply with his demands, rather than inspiring him to dismantle his nuclear weapons program.
In fact, Moon’s attempts to silence civil society voices, especially on human rights issues, might be fueling Kim’s perception that he can coerce Seoul to comply with his demands, rather than inspiring him to dismantle his nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration’s decision to not focus on North Korea’s human rights violations since early 2018 at the outset of summit diplomacy — the human rights envoy position has been vacant since 2017 — also played a part in shifting global attention away from the Kim regime’s repressive practices, while providing tacit acceptance of Seoul’s actions against rights groups. Robert R. King, the former special envoy for North Korea human rights under the Obama administration, pithily wrote, “Ignoring human rights does not make the abuses go away, nor does ignoring abuses increase the desire or will of the Kim regime to reach an agreement on security issues in the long run.”
Furthermore, the chaebols probably have little to contribute to inter-Korean economic engagement, given existing sanctions, the poor investment and business environment in North Korea, and the Kim regime’s lack of interest. There also is a mismatch in what North Korea can offer and to these companies. The South Korean economist Park Sang-in writes, “South Korean chaebols are concentrated in heavy and chemical industries, and North Korean workers do not yet have the human capital that would be suitable for these industries.”
Moon has an opportunity to further consolidate South Korea’s democracy by allowing civil society groups, even ones that are critical of North Korea, to flourish, without damaging his pro-engagement policy toward Pyongyang. Although North Korea typically responds harshly to any criticisms about the regime, when pressed on the issue of human rights, it has taken efforts to improve them in certain cases. For example, North Korea in 2017 delivered progress on the rights of persons with disabilities and allowed for the visit of an official from the U.N. Human Rights Council, to the surprise of many Korea observers.
More broadly, the Moon administration and its successors will continue to wrestle with the weaknesses in its system inherited from South Korea’s autocratic predecessors. As this author has laid out elsewhere, tackling these legacies and loosening the grip of chaebols will require bold actions to increase resources to the public sector and services, institutionalize an improved, bipartisan system of checks and balances, encourage and provide more opportunities for the younger generation of political leaders, and address the culture of widespread corruption that lingers in both government and businesses.
The risks of letting North Korea policy objectives eclipse domestic priorities are not insignificant. The resounding win for the ruling party at the April 2020 legislative elections was the result of the Moon administration’s successful management of the pandemic, not its flailing North Korea policy; before the pandemic, Moon’s approval rating had fallen to as low as 30% as a result of the country’s economic slowdown and political scandals. But since the election, Moon’s approval rating has fallen steadily, as scandals, counterproductive policy moves, labor controversies, and slow or insensitive government responses soured the public’s view of the administration.
Moreover, the conditions that fueled the candlelight protests of 2016-2017 still exist and in some cases have worsened. According to the Bank of Korea, 25-29 year-olds accounted for over 20% of the unemployed in 2018, the highest figure among OECD numbers for seven consecutive years. The income disparity is wider than when he came to office and the support of voters in their 20s who had helped to propel Moon into office dropped from 90% in June 2017 to 44% in October 2019.
Progress on strengthening South Korea’s democratic institutions will take time and political will, but in the meanwhile, Moon can take small steps toward those longer-term goals by changing his approach to human rights and defector groups. As Jennifer S. Oh of South Korea’s Ewha Women’s University has argued, “civil society strengthens democratic governance by creating democratic citizens.” What better way to show North Korea and the world how to “do democracy” than to show the power and resilience of South Korea’s democracy — confident enough to listen to critics, empower civic organizations, and sustain wise policies beyond a single presidential term.
Acknowledgements and disclosures
Ted Reinert edited this paper, with contributions from Kevin Dong. Eun DuBois provided research assistance.
- Carter J. Eckert, Ki-baik Lee, Young Ick Lew, Michael Robinson, and Edward W. Wagner, Korea Old and New: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).