Among experts, the notion of democratic backsliding sounds many alarms, given events taking place in South Korea’s current government. As the country gradually phases out the previous authoritarian regime, the current president, Moon Jae-In, guides the South Korean government towards a different form of a similar danger. One could say there are similarities when comparisons are drawn between the (authoritarian-esque) governing styles of Donald Trump, President of the United States, and Moon Jae-in. World leaders — in both the developed and developing world — should pay attention to trends by which societies are governed, as the erosion of democracy may potentially lead to complete political and social disaster.
Indeed, according to Nancy Bermeo, author and political scholar at Princeton and Oxford University, democratic backsliding is described as, “the state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the existing institutions that sustain an existing democracy”. One of the institutions that sustains democracy are systems of checks and balances, as well as the separation of powers. The intent of this institution is to prevent corruption by holding branches of government accountable against seeking disproportionate amounts of power. Devoid of this institution, susceptibility to tyranny or authoritarian rule is high.
Historically, South Korea has recurrently faced an imbalanced separation of power. From May of 1963 to 1979, Park Chung-Hee ruled South Korea by way of authoritarianism, conservatism, dictatorship and militarized rule; he is credited with South Korea’s economic power due to his development of state-regulated financial institutions (Watkins). Moon Jae-In was born in 1953 under the dictator rule of Park Chung-Hee which influenced his later political activism against the regime. As Moon Jae-In matured, he chose to pursue law, however his activism resulted in his expulsion and brief imprisonment before returning back to university, according to Gi-Wook Shin’s article, “South Korea’s Democratic Decay”.
In May of 2017, Moon Jae-in was successfully elected as president with an approval rating of 80 percent which was accredited to his progressivism (Ryall). Moon Jae-In campaigned under the notion of “eradicating deep-rooted evils” (KBSNews), alluding to the historical rule of conservative and militarized regimes. The opposing argument regarding “deep rooted evils” (KBSNews) from conservatives view Moon Jae-In’s administration negatively as “the evil” due to nationalistic and agressive institutional reformations implemented by his administration. In fact, Moon’s approach left South Korean conservatives feeling isolated, which resulted in an equally aggressive political response, polarizing conservatives and progressives. Polarization cripples a democracy as it may lead to resentment towards the opposing party (and thus a lack of cooperation), gridlock or, the political dominion of one party (McCoy). South Korea falls victim to the political dominion of the progressive party being that in South Korea, “Moon Jae-In’s Democratic Party” exercises a three-fifths majority in the national assembly, having a firm grasp on the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government (Gi-Wook Shin).
Moon Jae-In’s perceived sanctimonious approach to governing, further exacerbated democratic erosion in South Korea. In efforts to eradicate so-called “deep rooted evils” (KBSNews), the Moon administration led special investigations, as well as created 39 task forces to scrutinize government ministries that upheld the policies of previous state leaders (Gi-Wook Shin). This pressure to be loyal to Moon’s progressive ideology (as opposed to loyalty towards bipartisanship) on government workers was widely felt. Moon Jae-In further proceeded to hand seIect prosecutors for executive roles in government, as well as extended his influence on the judicial system through the removal and appointment of judges to his liking. This practice heightened partisanship at the judicial level, which was identified and countered by the 2017 amendment, the Korean Prosecutors Act. This act works to ensure judges serve in the range of their “scope of duties” (again, by Moon’s standards) (Korea Legislation Institute) as the judiciary serves as the ‘last defense for rule of law”. (GI-Wook Shin). As recently as November of 2020, Yoon Seok-Youl, Prosecutor General, had five allegations made against him resulting in his suspension by the Minister of Justice, Choo Mi-Ae for, “damaged dignity and trust in his relation to his political neutrality as prosecutor general”. In a failed attempt to rehabilitate a nation passing a period of corruption, Moon instead amplified the issue through a lack of attentiveness for checks and balances.
To compare with the experiences of the United States, one could similarly view the Trump Administration’s rollback of “Obama Era” policies as a form of democratic erosion. For example, the Obama administration had established limitations on “hydraulic fracturing, or fracking on public lands’ (Eilperin, Cameron) in an effort to help combat environmental degradation. Reminiscent of the Moon Jae-In administration, this ruling was undermined and repealed by the Trump administration, setting back policies created by previous heads of state. Another similarity lies with the Trump administration’s appointing of conservative Supreme Court Justices to serve the judiciary. The current American administration’s goal, similar to those of Moon Jae-In’s, is to implement ideologies that uphold his and his party’s own policies and political views to the highest level of law — despite bipartisan democatic norms and standards.
Democratic practices such as checks and balances, as well as separation of powers, ensure a lack of power hoarding within systems of government. This is critical for all democratic institutions. South Korea will continue to struggle with a divided political society and government unless President Moon Jae-In recognizes his role in exacerbating polarizing trends that further erode democratic stability and, instead, seeks to scale back his partisan approach to governance.