Korea’s democratic decay

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Korea’s democratic decay

Michael Green
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.


When I travel in countries in Southeast Asia, like Cambodia and Myanmar, and talk to civil society groups or government officials about democracy, the country they most often point to as their model for peaceful democratic transition is Korea. In Mongolia, I have seen women entrepreneurs proudly show their wares under programs for women’s empowerment sponsored by the Korean International Cooperation Agency (Koica). In surveys I have conducted at CSIS in recent years on the future of Asian peace, prosperity and regional order, few respondents are more enthusiastic about the importance of advancing democratic governance norms than Korean thought leaders.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised that early in his tenure he plans to hold a major summit of democracies. Korea would seem like a natural partner and even an early host of such a summit. Korea was the first Asian nation to hold the presidency of the Community of Democracies two decades ago. When President Obama was looking for a close ally with a global profile to host the second nuclear summit in 2012, he enthusiastically chose Korea. Then the United States and other members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) turned to Korea to host the Fourth High Level Summit on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in 2014, where democratic governance and accountability emerged as major themes. Given this track record, Seoul seems like the perfect destination for one of the early summits of democracies envisioned by Biden.

Yet when Biden’s new team reviews core partners for his democracy initiative, they may pause before looking to Seoul for leadership this time. They will likely have heard disturbing reports from democracy experts about a more authoritarian turn in the Blue House in recent years. They will take note that some members of Congress are also raising concerns. One recent example was the public statement released by Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey criticizing legislation in the National Assembly that would ban the sending of bibles, leaflets and money across the demilitarized zone to North Korea. As Smith’s Dec. 11 statement read, “I am troubled that legislators in an ostensibly vibrant democracy would contemplate criminalizing conduct aimed at promoting democracy and providing spiritual and humanitarian succor to people suffering under one of the cruelest communist dictatorships in the world.”

Some may dismiss Smith as a conservative human-rights hawk and therefore not representative of mainstream thinking on South Korean democracy. However, the warnings about anti-democratic trends in Seoul are even more wide-spread among progressives. In the July issue of the Journal of Democracy, Stanford University’s Shin Gi-wook published an article titled “South Korea’s Democratic Decay.” The article argues that former pro-democracy advocates in the Blue House are now using their perch in government to enforce “zero-sum politics in which opponents are demonized, democratic norms are eroded, and political life grows ever more polarized.” Shin is not alone among progressives in holding this view. There are other research projects and books being prepared that will soon chronicle the tools being used to suppress democratic opposition in Korean politics, tools that include: arbitrary government prosecution of political and business opponents, tax and other investigations to intimidate or silence opposition media, shunning of research and academic institutions at home and abroad that do not tow the Blue House line, and the passing of legislation banning freedom of speech and support for North Korean human rights. If these articles and reports were being prepared by conservative critics of the Democratic Party of Korea, they might be dismissed as partisan attacks. However, the authors are mostly like Professor Shin; scholars who once fought against repression and celebrated the candlelight vigils and peaceful protests that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in 2017.

The “democratic decay” Shin and others describe is hardly unique to Korea, of course. Freedom House, which monitors global democracy trends, has reported that the share of free countries has declined over the past decade. In the Freedom House 2019 annual survey, South Korea is still listed very much as a free country, but the tools being used to undercut democratic criticism and opposition have earned South Korea rankings for “political participation” and “civil liberties” well below other established democracies in Northeast Asia.

The United States is hardly pristine in this regard. President Trump is using disinformation to undermine public confidence in the 2020 election result and has tried unsuccessfully to mobilize his Attorney General and his appointees on the U.S. Supreme Court to help him overturn Biden’s victory. Fortunately for democracy in America, Trump’s anti-democratic ploys are being foiled by a system of checks and balances.

Now Biden has declared that democracy at home and abroad will be a major theme for his administration. Leaders who engaged in hyper-partisanship or strong arm tactics all got a pass from Trump. In some cases — including Kim Jong-un, Vladmir Putin, and Xi Jinping — Trump even expressed envy for the tools dictators were able to use to stay in power. The Biden administration is poised to hold the United States and other countries to a higher standard.

None of this suggests that the Biden administration will somehow shun Korea. The alliance is too important to U.S. security. So too is the potential for Seoul to become a core partner in supporting democratic governance across Asia. Biden’s democracy campaign will seek to be inclusive and humble, particularly given the challenges in U.S. democratic governance currently laid bare before the world.

But unfortunately, when the new Biden administration seeks out intellectual and diplomatic partners on its signature summit of democracies, many democracy experts who are tracking developments in Seoul right now will likely suggest caution about highlighting Korea as a model citizen — at least for now. The leaders in the Blue House and National Assembly should consider this development, not simply because of the impact on Korea’s role in a Summit of Democracies, but because of the commitment to democratic change that so many of them struggled to realize throughout their own careers.

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