1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 2


Midway through his five-year term, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung pushed forward with plans to shut down, privatize, or restructure heavily indebted firms despite strong opposition from labor unions, which had helped elect him in 1997. Although Kim argued that painful measures were needed to avoid a repeat of the financial crisis that wracked the economy in 1997, union leaders said that workers faced tens of thousands of layoffs and were being forced to shoulder the brunt of the restructuring costs.

The Republic of Korea was formally established in 1948, three years after the United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula. In the next four decades authoritarian rulers directed an industrialization drive that transformed a poor, agrarian country into the eleventh-largest economy in the world.

South Korea's democratic transition began in 1987, when strongman Chun Doo Hwan and his chosen successor, Roh Tae Woo, conceded to direct presidential elections amid widespread student protests. Roh beat South Korea's best-known dissidents, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, in presidential elections in December 1987.

Kim Young Sam merged his party with the ruling party in 1990 to form the conservative Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) and won the 1992 presidential election to become the first civilian president since 1961. Kim curbed the powers of the domestic security services, sacked hardline military officers, prosecuted former presidents Chun and Roh for corruption and treason, and launched an anticorruption campaign. However, Kim's popularity waned as the reforms slowed. His DLP, renamed the New Korea Party, won only a plurality with 139 seats, a loss of 10, in parliamentary elections in April 1996.

By early 1997, an economic slowdown had forced eight highly-indebted chaebols (business conglomerates) into bankruptcy and exposed serious weaknesses in the heavily-indebted private sector. With the country perhaps weeks away from a private sector debt default, the government agreed in early December to a $57 billion International Monetary Fund-led bailout in return for commitments to restructure companies and end lifetime labor guarantees. Amid the country's worst economic crisis in decades, Kim Dae Jung became the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election on December 18. Backed by organized labor and his core support base in the southwestern Cholla region, Kim won 40.4 percent of the vote and defeated two conservative candidates, Lee Hoi Chang of the ruling party, renamed the Grand National Party (GNP), and Rhee In Je, a ruling party defector.

The Kim administration quickly persuaded foreign creditors to restructure some $150 billion in private sector debt and signed laws ending a tradition of lifetime employment. While gross domestic product contracted 5.8 percent in 1998, it increased by 10.7 percent in 1999. Yet Kim's ambitious plans to inject cash into struggling banks to allow them to shut down or restructure indebted companies faced strong opposition from his trade unions, which argued that workers were being forced to accept widespread layoffs while the chaebols had made few changes to their business practices.

Despite losing some support among workers, Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) reduced the GNP's plurality in parliamentary elections on April 13, 2000. Under a record-low 57 percent turnout, final results for the 273 parliamentary seats gave the GNP 133 seats; the MDP, 115; the conservative United Liberal Democrats, 17; the conservative Democratic People's Party, 2; and independents, 6. During the campaign, the GNP had criticized the administration's restructuring plans as well as the speed of Kim's rapprochement with hardline North Korea, which led to the first ever summit meeting between leaders of the two countries in June. The government ran on its record of returning economic growth to double digit levels. However, the unemployment rate, though relatively low at 5 percent, remained above pre-crisis levels, and wages for most workers remained lower than before the crisis.

Although several unions held rallies late in the year to protest impending layoffs, the administration's corporate restructuring plans received a boost in November, when a group of creditors said they would force 52 firms to be liquidated, placed under receivership, sold, or merged. Separately, unions at Daewoo Motor, the country's second-largest carmaker, agreed to layoffs.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

South Koreans can change their government democratically. The 1988 constitution vested executive powers in a president who is directly elected for a five-year term, but imposed a one-term limit on the president and took away his power to dissolve the national assembly, which is directly elected for a four-year term. The national assembly has 227 members elected in single-member, simple plurality districts and 46 elected via proportional representation. The prime minister is responsible to the president.

The judiciary is independent. However, according to the United States State Department's country report for 1999, "several recent scandals involving alleged illegal influence peddling and cronyism have damaged the image of prosecutors and judges." Moreover, the opposition continued to accuse the government of selectively prosecuting political opponents and other critics on tax evasion and other charges. In recent years, human rights organizations have reported that while police continue to abuse detainees to extract confessions, the number of such cases has declined.

A former dissident, President Kim has released dozens of long-term political prisoners held under the National Security Law (NSL), which broadly defines espionage and permits authorities to detain and arrest persons for allegedly pro-North Korean acts. However, since coming to office, the administration has also used the NSL to arrest hundreds of students, labor leaders, and political activists. While authorities arrested some suspects on espionage charges, they arrested many others for what appeared to be peaceful expression or activity, including traveling to North Korea or distributing pro-Pyongyang literature. Courts handed down suspended sentences or short prison terms to most of those arrested, but long prison sentences to others. Officials justified the continued use of the NSL by citing the omnipresent North Korean security threat. The U.S. State Department estimated in its 1999 country report that the number of political prisoners appears to be "under 200."

In recent years, some opposition politicians have claimed that they were being illegally wiretapped. These claims are somewhat plausible but difficult to verify.

The print media, which are privately-owned, operate under several constraints. They include the government's arrest and jailing of several journalists in recent years under criminal libel laws. Press groups say that politicians and businesses use the libel laws to punish journalists for articles that are critical but factually accurate. In addition, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in 1999 that newspaper owners often urge journalists to avoid critical coverage of economic and business affairs. Most broadcast media are subsidized by the state, but they offer diverse views.

Civic groups continued to be highly active in promoting social and political reform. In January, a nonpartisan alliance of some 470 nongovernmental organizations called Citizens' Solidarity published the names of 114 members of the national assembly and candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections that it said were unfit to hold office for reasons including alleged tax evasion and corruption.

Religious freedom is respected. Women face unofficial societal and employment discrimination and are frequently the first to be laid off during corporate restructuring. Rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment continued to be serious problems. The government has generally been responsive to these issues. Members of the small ethnic-Chinese community cannot obtain citizenship or become civil servants and face some societal discrimination.

In recent years, authorities have prevented some demonstrations under a law that permits them to prohibit assemblies on public order grounds. However, students and workers continued to hold numerous demonstrations with minimum government interference.

The two largest trade unions are vigorous even though they have a combined membership of only 1.6 million workers. The 1998 Trade Union Labor Relations Adjustment Act will permit multiple unions at the company level beginning in 2002. The law prohibits defense and white collar government workers from forming unions, although the latter can form more limited workplace councils. It also prohibits strikes in government agencies, state-run enterprises, and defense industries. The Kim administration has prosecuted some workers for allegedly instigating violent strikes or organizing strikes deemed illegal. Riot police broke up at least two major strike actions in 2000. Authorities rarely prosecute employers for labor violations including illegally firing workers or physically abusing and forcing foreign workers to work longer hours and for less pay than initially promised.

While the Kim administration has introduced various anticorruption measures, including investigations into tax evasion, anecdotal reports continued to suggest that bribery, extortion by officials, and influence peddling are pervasive in politics, business, and daily life. The London-based Economist reported in April that some observers expected candidates for the legislative elections to spend, on average, ten times the legal campaign spending limit. The Berlin-based Transparency International's 2000 Corruption Perception Index ranked South Korea 48th out of 90 countries with a score of 4.0 on a 1-to-10 scale. The top-ranked and least-corrupt country, Finland, received a score of 10.

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