Capital: Seoul
Population: 48,747,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 2 *
Status: Free


Although South Korea faced economic uncertainty and renewed provocations from North Korea during 2009, the domestic political situation was calm compared with the large street protests of 2008. There were some expressions of public frustration, such as after the May suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun and in response to layoffs by the automaker Ssangyong Motor, but they did not escalate into broader unrest.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) was established on the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula in 1948, three years after the Allied victory in World War II ended Japan's 35-year occupation. U.S. and Soviet forces had divided the peninsula between them, initially to accept the surrender of the Japanese army. The subsequent Korean War (1950-53) pitted the U.S.- and UN-backed ROK, or South Korea, against the Soviet- and Chinese-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, and left some three million Koreans dead or wounded. In the decades that followed the 1953 armistice, South Korea's mainly military rulers crushed dissent and maintained a tightly controlled society in response to the continuing threat from the North. During this period, South Korea implemented an export-led industrialization drive that transformed the poor, agrarian land into one of the world's leading economies.

South Korea began its democratic transition in 1987, when military strongman Chun Doo-hwan acceded to widespread protests by students and the middle class, allowing his successor to be chosen in a direct presidential election. In the December balloting, Roh Tae-woo, Chun's ally and fellow general, defeated the country's two best-known dissidents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, as the opposition failed to unite behind a single candidate.

After joining the ruling party in 1990, Kim Young-sam defeated Kim Dae-jung in the 1992 presidential election to become South Korea's first civilian president since 1961. As president, he tried to reduce corruption, sacked hard-line military officers, curbed the domestic security services, and successfully prosecuted former presidents Chun and Roh for corruption and treason. However, anger over the government's failure to better supervise the country's banks and business conglomerates in the midst of a regional financial crisis led South Koreans in 1997 to elect Kim Dae-jung as president, making him the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election.

Kim Dae-jung's efforts to reach out to North Korea culminated in a historic 2000 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. With Kim Dae-jung constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, Roh Moo-hyun, a human rights lawyer and former cabinet minister, won the 2002 presidential election on the ruling liberal party's ticket; he narrowly defeated Lee Hoi-chang of the opposition conservative Grand National Party (GNP).

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, just one year into his term, the opposition brought a parliamentary motion to impeach Roh over a minor technical breach of election rules, and he stepped down temporarily. The Constitutional Court then overturned the impeachment vote, and Roh was reinstated. Nevertheless, his popularity entered a period of sustained decline.

Former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak of the GNP won the December 2007 presidential election with 48.7 percent of the vote, defeating former unification minister Chung Dong-young of the liberal Uri Party, who took 26.1 percent. The GNP scored another victory in the April 2008 parliamentary elections, winning 131 seats outright and an additional 22 seats through proportional representation; the opposition Democratic Party (formerly the Uri Party) captured 66 seats outright and received 15 proportional seats. Four smaller parties and independents accounted for the remainder.

After taking office, President Lee focused his foreign policy on strengthening relations with the United States rather than improving ties with North Korea. South Korea's decision to resume U.S. beef imports in April drew weeks of protests in the form of mass candlelight vigils. The demonstrations were driven in part by broader disappointment with the new administration's alleged "authoritarian style" of governance, business-friendly reform agenda, and other changes from the policies of the two previous presidents. The crippling protests ultimately forced a cabinet reshuffle and backtracking on much of Lee's agenda.

Government and public attention shifted to the economy in late 2008 as a global financial crisis emerged. With aggressive fiscal intervention and heavy spending, the Lee administration was able to stabilize the financial sector, save the job market from massive layoffs, and steer the economy toward recovery after an initial plummet.

The domestic political situation remained fairly calm in 2009 compared with the previous year. There were many occasions that could have led to large and sustained protests. For example, former president Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide in May amid corruption allegations, and former president Kim Dae-jung's death from natural causes in August provided Lee's opponents with another opportunity to muster. In addition, workers facing layoffs by the automaker Ssangyong Motor occupied a factory from May through August, at times clashing with police. However, the president avoided major instability in part through increased sensitivity to public opinion and a greater emphasis on helping the poor and needy in society rather than simply promoting pro-business policies.

Relations with North Korea grew more tense in the first half of 2009, as Pyongyang announced in April that it was withdrawing from the multilateral Six-Party Talks on its nuclear weapons program. It also tested a long-range missile that month, and conducted its second nuclear weapons test in May. The UN Security Council tightened sanctions on the North in response. A number of events later in the year served to ease tensions somewhat, including Pyongyang's decision to send a delegation to Kim Dae-jung's funeral.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

South Korea is an electoral democracy. Elections are free and fair, and electoral processes have improved since 2002. The 1988 constitution vests executive power in a directly elected president, who is limited to a single five-year term. Of the unicameral National Assembly's 299 members, 245 are elected in single-member districts and 54 are chosen through nationwide proportional representation, all for four-year terms.

Political pluralism is robust in South Korean politics, with multiple political parties competing for power. The two largest parties are the GNP and the Democratic Party, formerly the Uri Party.

Despite the overall health of the South Korean political system, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion by officials have not been eradicated from politics, business, and everyday life. In 2009, President Lee Myung-bak made anticorruption efforts a top administrative priority, particularly in the defense sector. Former president Roh Moo-hyun came under investigation in April for soliciting approximately $6 million from a shoe manufacturer while in office, driving the humiliated former leader to take his own life in May. South Korea was ranked 39 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

South Korea's news media are free and competitive. Newspapers are privately owned and report fairly aggressively on government 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. The National Security Law 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.

In 2009, a number of events suggested that the government was attempting to curb critical media. Legislation to deregulate media ownership was passed in July, potentially allowing large conservative newspaper companies to take over progressive broadcast outlets that tend to be critical of the Lee administration. Although proper voting procedures for the bill were violated, the Constitutional Court ruled that it was still valid. Separately, a blogger known as Minerva was arrested in January and charged with spreading false economic information that caused instability in the markets. He was acquitted in April, however. In June, four producers and a writer for the television program "PD Notebook" were indicted on defamation charges for a 2008 report on U.S. beef imports that had sparked weeks of protests; the accused face five-year prison sentences. A series of six hearings began in September and would continue into 2010.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Academic freedom is also unrestricted, with the exception of limits on statements of support for the North Korean regime or communism, in accordance with the National Security Law. This law is applied selectively and only rarely.

South Korea respects freedom of assembly, and the Law on Assembly and Demonstrations requires only that the police be informed in advance of all demonstrations, including political rallies. However, local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have alleged that while protestors are convicted under this law, police have not been equally penalized for mistreating demonstrators. In September 2009, the Constitutional Court struck down a rule banning demonstration activities at night and called for revised legislation by the end of June 2010. Human rights groups, social welfare organizations, and other NGOs are active and for the most part operate freely.

The country's independent labor unions advocate workers' interests, organizing high-profile strikes and demonstrations that sometimes lead to arrests. However, labor unions in general have been diminishing in strength and popularity. The violent strike that began in May 2009 at a Ssangyong Motor factory in Pyeongtaek further weakened public support for the unions, especially as many companies struggled amid the economic downturn. Significant labor reforms that would allow multiple unions to compete within companies and no longer require employers to pay for union leaders who are not direct employees were pending at year's end.

South Korea's judiciary is generally considered to be independent. There is no trial by jury; judges render verdicts in all cases. Police occasionally engage in verbal and physical abuse of detainees. While South Korea's prisons lack certain amenities, such as hot water in the winter, there have been few reports of beatings or intimidation by guards.

Because South Korean citizenship is based on parentage rather than place of birth, residents who are not ethnic Koreans face extreme difficulties obtaining citizenship. Lack of citizenship bars them from the civil service and also limits job opportunities at some major corporations. The country's 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 telephone calls, mail, and e-mail. However, the number of reported wiretaps increased significantly between 2008 and 2009., Political and business elites often carry two mobile phones and change their numbers frequently to evade what they perceive as intrusive government eavesdropping. 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 enjoy legal equality, they face discrimination in practice, with men enjoying more social privileges and better employment opportunities. However, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling granted married women equal rights with respect to inheritance. Previously, married women were considered to be part of their husband's family and were not eligible to inherit family property. South Korea is one of the few countries outside the Muslim world where adultery is a criminal offense.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.