Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 2
Status: Free
Population: 48,300,000
GNI/Capita: $12,030
Life Expectancy: 77
Religious Groups: Christian (26 percent), Buddhist (26 percent), Confucian (1 percent), other (47 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Korean
Capital: Seoul


The South Korean government had a turbulent year in 2005, as ideological disputes deepened a divide between President Roh Moo-huyn's liberal Uri Party and the conservative, opposition Grand National Party (GNP). At issue was the government's attitude toward North Korea and proposed changes to the 1948 National Security Law (NSL). In July, the Supreme Court ruled that women had equal rights as men regarding the inheritance of family property.

The Republic of Korea was established in 1948, three years after the Allied victory in World War II ended Japan's 35-year colonization of Korea and led to the division of the Korean Peninsula between U.S. (in the south) and Soviet (in the north) forces. The Korean War (1950-1953) pitted the U.S.- and UN-backed Republic of Korea (South Korea) against the Soviet- and Chinese-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and left some 3 million Koreans dead or wounded. During the Cold War, South Korea's mainly military rulers crushed left-wing dissent and kept the nation on a virtual war footing in response to the continuing threat from the North. During this time, South Korea also led an industrialization drive that transformed a poor, agrarian land into one of the world's largest economies.

South Korea began its democratic transition in 1987, when military strongman Chun Doo-hwan acceded to widespread student protests and allowed his successor to be chosen in a direct presidential election. In the vote that took place that December, Chun's protégé, Roh Tai-woo, defeated the country's two best-known dissidents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.

After joining the ruling party in 1990, Kim Young-sam defeated Kim Daee-jung in the 1992 presidential election to become South Korea's first civilian president since 1961. As president, Kim reduced corruption, sacked hard-line military officers, curbed the domestic security services, and successfully prosecuted former presidents Chun and Roh for corruption and treason. However, the country was hit hard by the regional financial crisis of 1997-1998. Angry over the government's failure to better supervise the country's banks and business conglomerates, South Koreans in December 1997 elected as president the former dissident Kim Dae-jung, who became the country's first opposition candidate to win a presidential election.

Under Kim, South Korea's economy rebounded to become one of the most robust in Asia.

Public frustration with a series of corruption scandals, along with criticism that Kim Dae-jung's policy of engagement with North Korea had reaped few benefits, helped the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) take the most seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections. It captured 133 out of parliament's 273 seats, with Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) taking 115. With Kim constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, Roh Moo-huyn, 56, won the December 2002 presidential elections on the MDP ticket. Roh narrowly beat Lee Hoi-chang, the candidate of the main opposition GNP, after a campaign in which Roh mixed populist promises with anti-American rhetoric.

Anti-American sentiment has grown in recent years as the South Korean population increasingly turns toward pro-North Korean sentiment; there have been ideological clashes within the government in regards to this growing sentiment, surrounding the National Security Law (NSL), as well as public disputes.

Roh took office in February 2003 facing an economic slowdown, an opposition-led parliament, and public moves by North Korea to revive its nuclear weapons program. In addition, a major fundraising scandal added urgency to long-standing calls for an overhaul of South Korea's campaign finance laws. Late in the year, prosecutors were investigating allegations that former top aides to Roh, as well as legislators from across the political spectrum, accepted millions of dollars in illegal corporate donations before and after the 2002 presidential election. The opposition-led parliament put off consideration of several bills as it remained at loggerheads with Roh over how to investigate the scandal. In October 2003, parliamentarians loyal to Roh – mostly from the MDP, but a few from the GNP – formed the Uri Party. The following month, Roh vetoed a GNP bill calling for an independent counsel to investigate allegations of corruption in his administration. The president said any independent investigation should wait until prosecutors investigating three of his former aides finished their work. Elected on pledges to improve corporate governance, bring greater transparency to state institutions, and engage (rather than contain) bellicose North Korea, Roh was forced to reshuffle his priorities.

In February 2004, Roh survived a political crisis when the opposition brought about a parliamentary motion to impeach him. The charges against him in the impeachment proceedings concerned a breach of election rules (Roh had urged support for the Uri Party), economic mismanagement, and corruption. However, these charges were widely seen as exaggerated, if not inappropriate. South Korean voters demonstrated their disapproval of the proceedings by supporting the president's party in parliamentary elections held in April 2004. The Uri Party won 152 seats to become the majority ruling party. The GNP and the MDP, the main opposition parties and the instigators of the impeachment vote, won 121 seats and 9 seats, respectively. The MDP's loss was particularly severe, and proved the impeachment vote had been an enormous miscalculation. Although Roh had stepped down from power following the impeachment vote, the Uri Party's victory in the parliamentary elections led the Constitutional Court to overturn the impeachment vote, and Roh was reinstated as president in May. Nevertheless, the Uri Party holds only a narrow majority in the parliament, and Roh's aggressive style continues to polarize the political environment within the country.

South Korea's relations with North Korea – particularly the appropriateness of the 1948 (NSL) – were a major issue in 2005. The NSL assumes an antagonistic relationship between North and South Korea and imposes restrictions on freedoms of expression, media, and of movement. During the year, the NSL came under fire for being antidemocratic and antinationalistic by the Korean public and the Uri-led government. However, the opposition GNP argued that the NSL is a key pillar of their anti-Communist platform; its repeal would be contrary to the party's ideological position and detrimental to the national interest.

While disarmament talks with North Korea remain at a standstill, South Korea has shown major progress by signing a joint declaration with the European Parliament allowing it to participate in any future talks with North Korea. Government officials hope that European participation may help speed up progress in this area.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of South Korea can change their government democratically. South Korea's elections are free and fair, and the government is elected on the basis of universal suffrage. The constitution, which was created in 1988, vests powers in a directly elected president, who is limited to a single five-year term. The unicameral National Assembly, consisting of 299 members, is directly elected for a four-year term.

The 2004 parliamentary election demonstrated that major steps had been taken since 2002 to improve electoral processes. Improvements included adherence to campaigning rules, record levels of voter turnout, and a reduction in electoral irregularities under the watch of the National Election Commission.

Political pluralism is robust in South Korean politics, with multiple political parties competing for power. Major political parties include the Uri Party, the (MDP), the the Grand National Party (GNP), the United Liberal Democrats (ULP), and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).

Despite the overall health of the South Korean political system, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion by officials have not been eradicated from political, business, and everyday life. However, the South Korean government has made recent progress in developing institutions and laws to help fight corruption. South Korea was ranked 40 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

South Korea's news media are free and competitive. Newspapers are privately owned and report fairly aggressively on governmental policies and alleged official and corporate wrongdoing. The government directly censors films for sex and violence, though it has been increasingly liberal in recent years. Violent and sexually explicit websites are also censored. South Korea's online media have been praised by Reporters Without Borders for expanding quickly without censorship. The journalism watchdog group names South Korea as the top-ranked Asian country in the area freedom of information.

The administration of President Roh Moo-huyn has recently come under attack for trying to push through legislation that would restrict the circulation of conservative dailies, thereby restricting their influence in a strongly divided country. To the credit of the South Korean government, the law did not pass. The NSL stipulates that South Koreans may not listen to North Korean radio. However, no effective measures are in place to block access to broadcasts by North Korean stations. Reporters Without Borders and other organizations have supported the repeal of the NSL because its revocation would improve media freedom by allowing freer media coverage on North Korea. The GNP has threatened to obstruct a repeal motion with all "means and methods" at their disposal.

The constitution in South Korea provides for freedom of religion, and the government does not enforce any state religion. Academic freedom is also unrestricted, with the exception of limits on statements of support for the North Korean regime or pro-Communist comments.

South Korea maintains freedom of association, and the Law on Assembly and Demonstrations requires only that the police be informed in advance of all demonstrations, including political rallies. Human rights, social welfare, and other nongovernmental groups are active and operate freely.

South Korea's independent labor unions strongly advocate workers' interests, often by organizing high-profile strikes and demonstrations that sometimes lead to arrests. According to the U.S. State Department's 2005 human rights report, there were 228 strikes, involving 105,577 workers, between January and August 2005. Beginning in 2006, multiple unions will be permitted at the company level, a change expected to give workers greater choice of representatives. The law, however, still bars defense industry and white-collar government workers from forming unions and bargaining collectively, although government workers can form more limited workplace councils. Even those federations not recognized by the government operate in practice without restriction, however. Collective bargaining is widespread among both legal and unrecognized labor federations.

South Korea's judiciary is generally considered to be independent, and the U.S. State Department report declared that it is "becoming increasingly so in practice." There is no trial by jury; judges render verdicts in all cases. The National Police Administration, under the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, is occasionally responsible for human rights abuses such as verbal and physical abuse of detainees. The police administration is generally considered well-disciplined and uncorrupt.

Laws concerning detention are often vague. Of particular concern is the broadly drafted NSL, which authorizes the arrest of South Koreans accused of espionage or of supporting North Korea in general. The interpretation of this law means that people can be arrested for making positive remarks about North Korea, although these arrests are the subject of considerable dispute. In August 2004, the Constitutional Court ruled that the law did not excessively restrict human rights, but in October, the ruling Uri Party introduced legislation to loosen or scrap the law, offering the country alternatives ranging from revisions of the existing law to the drafting of an entirely new law. The move was part of the government's broader reform drive, but thousands of people rallied in protest, asserting that the law in its current form was still a necessary safeguard against security threats from North Korea.

Because South Korean citizenship is based on parentage rather than place of birth, non-ethnic South Koreans face extreme difficulties obtaining citizenship. Lack of citizenship bars them from the civil service and makes it harder to be hired by some major corporations. The country's very few ethnic minorities face legal and societal discrimination.

The government generally respects citizens' right to privacy. An Anti-Wiretap Law sets out the conditions under which the government can monitor phone calls, mail, and e-mail. Travel both within South Korea and abroad is unrestricted; the only exception is travel to North Korea, for which government approval is required.

Although women in South Korea possess de jure equality, there is considerable de facto discrimination within society, with men enjoying more social privileges and better employment opportunities. However, a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in July 2005 granted married women in South Korea equal property rights with men concerning the inheritance of property owned by family clans. Previously, married women were considered to be part of their husband's family and were not eligible to inherit family property. Women's rights groups in South Korea hailed the decision as significant for reducing gender discrimination within the family.

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