The state of South Korea’s democracy is precarious; instead of a positive trend of democratization, democratic erosion is the prevalent force. De-democratization with a myriad of names refers to the gradual decline of democracy, often caused by the instability of political institutions. Since the end of the Cold War has taken on different forms (Bermeo, 2016, p. 5). With the rise of the populist movement and political polarization, political leaders now covertly dismantle democratic institutions, and once overt military coups led by dictators to overthrow incumbents, have since dwindled (Bermeo, 2016, p.6). With the decline of coups, the unconstitutional seizure of power has evolved into a more insidious yet subtle form, which is leading to a democratic recession.
Party polarization is not just synonymous with United States political leaders and their ad hominem rhetoric, but it is a global phenomenon. The Taegukgi national party, named after the South Korean flag, and the Moon-PPA, a name given to the South Korean President Moon’s overzealous followers exhibit signs of mutual distaste, with protests and rallies on both sides. A freedomnet.org study showcases fourteen years of democratic decline, and for each new wave of freedom in a country, there is a pushback, a reverse counteracting wave in another. In 2006, the study showed there was a high point of 62%, but as of 2019, the stats have dropped to about 49%. Political polarization seems like an inevitable enemy, however, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their podcast/book, How Democracies Die, emphasize the importance of forbearance and mutual respect as norms in order to preserve democracy. South Korean’s legitimacy of law is being undermined, through the excessive use of power has transformed being impartial to abusive because of hate and intolerance. There have been various rallies consisting of pro-Moon support, and also anti-moon gatherings, clashing ideologies, and good vs. evil morals have led to demonizing opposing viewpoints, and demonization of political opposition leads to de-democratization. In the podcast, there is an example of Newt Gingrich’s hateful rhetoric, which often parallels with Trump’s fake news chagrin reiterates Levitsky and Ziblatt’s crucial point. In regard to South Koreans, South Korea is not impermeable to the current climate of backsliding as elected leaders exploit democratic guardrails to turn to illiberal democracies, and if the slippery slope continues, autocracies.
Executive aggrandizement is a form of democratic backsliding where the executive branch seizes power from the other two branches by weakening the checks and balances on the executive (Bermeo.) South Korea’s form of government compromises the legality of the court system by the overuse of administrative power under the guise of eradicating malicious intent, which jeopardizes the importance of the separation of powers. A judge who was involved in progressive groups consisting of lawyers got a promotion and was appointed to secretary of legal officers for the president, and judge who shared the same characteristics, who was also three months into their retirement, had the role of being the successor. The South Korean Prosecutor’s Office Act which prohibits the prosecutor’s applications to Cheongwadae, an executive office, however, this act has been exploited in which recently retired prosecutors could re-apply, which can lead to bias and rulings based on personal preference versus legalistic decision making, which undermines the judicial court which can follow unprecedented convolution of the separation of powers. The current administration put a cease to the loophole in 2017, by formulating a stipulation that required a one-year gap following the retirement of prosecutors. As a form of retaliation, the Cheongwadae officials advocated against the decision made by the administration, arguing that judges had more political freedom and had the right to express themselves, and this has severely undermined the judicial branch. Because of these unreprimanded actions, under the semblance of justice and eradicating evil, there has been the arrest of a former chief justice, and this can lead to the judicial branch being led astray by political sway and political biases emerging in court. In reiteration of a prior point, forbearance is one of the guardrails in the preservation of democracy, which refers to the self-restraint in exercising power. The Moon administration has not shown restraint through the excessive use of power to eliminate political enemies such as the unlawful arrests of former president Lee Myung-bak and former chief justice Yang Sung-Tae. Moon has also created a task force with the goal to single out former advisors and councilors and remove previous policies that are deemed detrimental to Korean society, under the misconceptions of valiant heroism for the greater good of the people, and using naysayers as scapegoats to justify their undemocratic actions by shutting down freedom of speech. These unjustified public humiliations have led to the decline of morale, and ideological loyalty has taken place.
The rise of populism, the political appeal to ordinary people against the elites, has led to the rise of logos and pathos as forms of appeal; civil discourse is seemingly becoming non-existent in society. With plans to raise the minimum wage under the Moon campaign, there was push back by economists looking at a long-term view urging the minimum wage should be increased to reflect the self-employed population. The economists’ legitimate criticisms were overlooked by Moon, who fervently believed that it would reflect the interests of the privileged, in turn, because of the increased minimum wage, self- employed individuals were severely hurt financially. At the beginning stages of Coronavirus, South Korean doctors urged for the temporary ban of Chinese travelers, Moon defied the orders coming to the aid of China, which have led to disastrous effects for South Korea and its citizens. International and foreign policy, such as the inter-Korean policy, where South Korea wrongly stated, North Korea had plans for denuclearization and refereed to the critics as advocates for “anti-peace,” also the planned orchestration of Moon and Kim Jong Un walking together at a summit in 2018, as well the picture of Trump, Moon, and Kim at the Panmunjom, created mass emotional appeal. The policy behind the meetings was deemed one of the worst Korean deals, and the current administration has even sued a professor who wrote an article, chastising their actions. With harsh diction towards dissenting views, many people have chosen to censor themselves for the sake of the majority rule and voice.
A myriad of skeptics can believe that democratic backsliding is only applicable to foreign countries, and a country such as the United States would never be susceptible. The same democratic institutions that supported Hitler’s rise to power, and led to tyrannical chaos, are prevalent in the United States. The mirage of elected officials can be used to dismantle democratic institutions combined with charged words and loaded language spewed by both political parties and their constituents. South Korea has all the components of proper democracy, yet democratic backsliding is quickly emerging. The United States is highly regarded as one of the strongest places for democracy, and with high skepticism towards democratic leaders becoming authoritarian, it has caused the trend in America. Similar to South Korea, the problem should not be dismissed because subtle symptoms can turn into an incurable disease, realizing that there is a problem is the first step to fixing the situation and fixing a seemingly impermeable system.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding .” Https://Www.researchgate.net/Publication/292590574_On_Democratic_Backsliding, Journal of Democracy, Jan. 2016.
Shin, Gi-Wook. “Korean Democracy Is Sinking Under the Guise of the Rule of Law.” FSI, 1 Apr. 2020, fsi.stanford.edu/news/korean-democracy-sinking-under-guise-rule-law.
Shin, Gi-Wook. “Korean Democracy Is Sinking under the Guise of the Rule of Law.” Korean Democracy Is Sinking under the Guise of the Rule of Law, Apr. 2020, fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/shin_korean_democracy_april_2020.pdf.
*Photo by Stephanie Nakagawa, “Two Korea National Flags.” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.”