Polarization can be observed as a phenomenon inflicting countries around the world to varying degrees. South Korea is no exception, since the founding of the Sixth Republic of Korea in 1987, the country has experienced polarization of varying levels, and even an instance of significant depolarization at the founding of the Sixth Republic. The transition to democracy helped the country depolarize greatly, and it is only in recent years that we see a smaller uptick in polarization levels again. I believe South Korea’s handling of disinformation and the investigation into corruption from within in the modern era is a model for other developed democracies to follow. How did they do this? What circumstances led to both the polarization and depolarization South Korea experienced, and can we learn anything from it? First some brief context is called for in order to better understand South Korea’s particular case.
As mentioned earlier, this is South Korea’s Sixth republic that continues to be their governance structure today. South Korea was locked under authoritarian dictatorships in the Republics and decades prior to the 1987 founding of the Sixth Republic. After a recent history of coups, an assassination, and civil demands, the government held elections and a referendum for a new constitution in 1987 which was approved and ushered in a new era of democracy on the peninsular nation. It has not been smooth sailing since 1987, but what you will find in South Korea is a developed democracy with a high functioning economy and the willingness to punish certain levels of corruption not seen in many other countries. It is in this year that we see the first instance of significant political depolarization. Leading up to the establishment of democracy in 1987, civil unrest had grown tremendously. Anti-government protests hit their peak in 87 when more than a million students and other citizens has gathered to call for democracy. The government could no longer ignore the outcry from the people and in the Summer of 87, officially announced the holding of presidential elections and for the restoration of civil rights to the South Korean people. The revised constitution was shortly thereafter successful in a national referendum and the Sixth Republic was established.
After the triumph of democracy, a different form of polarization took root. The biggest source of the deepening social divide in South Korea came on the heels of their extreme economic crisis in 1997. A shortage of foreign currency in 1997 led to this crisis which resulted in an economic growth rate of -5.8% in 1998 along with a contraction in demand and a -3.2% drop in real income (Yim and Lee 2002). Such an acute economic crisis made citizens painfully aware of rapidly growing income disparity among the classes which only served to drive the wedge of social polarization deeper. As Yim and Lee (2002) point out however, this 1997 crisis caused the exacerbation of the socio-economic polarization issue, but it did not create it. South Korea rapidly industrialized over the course of the 60s and the proceeding decades, leading to a rapidly shifting and increasingly globalized economy.
None of these underlying conditions from the 90s into the 2000s were beneficial for the conditions we see today amidst COVID-19 and the age of disinformation plaguing more than just the US. Rising polarization appears to some, especially in the case of the US, as a sign of the dying breaths of a democracy, but as the South Korean example shows, there are ways to combat this kind of polarization in this new digital age. In this modern environment, people are saturated with information from all over about almost anything. The fight must be taken online in order to effectively combat disinformation from fatally polarizing citizens in this political climate.
Much like in the US, disinformation about political candidates, office holders, and COVID-19 were present in South Korea and were only worsening the polarization already felt in the country. In 2008, South Korea saw large protests against the president at the time, Lee Myung-Bak over the import of American beef, which a TV network claimed was not safe from mad cow disease. The internet in this case was a catalyst for mobilization and outrage over disinformation. A similar instance was seen in the 2019 Former Deputy Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui orgy scandal, where disinformation spread rapidly online about corruption from the prosecution in that case (Tworek and Lee 2021). The difference between the toxic online polarization between the US and Korea, however, lies in how they handled the issues.
Several cases illustrate this difference, in 2017, president Park Geun-Hye was impeached, and it was revealed then through investigation that both military and intelligence officials used political astroturfing strategies in order to aid in Park’s victory in the elections. They essentially used thousands of phony social media accounts to smear opponents and promote pro-government opinions. South Korea kept the intelligence and military officers out of the investigation process since they were directly tied to this case of improper domestic influence attempts and were some of the officials lending Park the aid in this case. It was this entire impeachment process that saw South Korea experiencing increases in political polarization once again. Park was convicted and ultimately sentenced to prison time for the crimes.
Another has to do with the scandal known as “Druking-gate”, where a known ally for president Moon Jae-in was found to have collaborated with a blogger known as Druking in order to manipulate search results. Much like the first case, this is done with the intention of transforming public perception of certain individuals for political gain. Convictions were also handed down in this case as well (Tworek and Lee 2021). In both of these cases, we see an attempt to undermine democracy and the democratic process through manipulation of the public and their perceptions of politicians in power, which was swiftly stopped by South Korea’s democratic institutions, including the courts.
When it comes to COVID-19, disinformation was deadly in this case. South Korea managed a strategy of transparency, putting public health experts and officials at the forefront of keeping the public informed and updated on the virus and its spread. The government used texts, daily briefings, and official fact checking sources as ways to combat disinformation and help people connect with the experts (Tworek and Lee 2021). This, on some level, relates to the idea’s presented by Applebaum and Pomerantsev (2019, 20201) in their works on the internet, disinformation, and creating a more democracy friendly online public sphere. Some of the strategies they recommend may not be directly employed in South Korea, but the idea of actively combatting disinformation and creating a democracy friendly internet is certainly a strategy that can be seen to some extent in South Korea.
Disinformation can be damaging or even deadly to a democracy, as we have seen the polarization in countries like the US, but it does not have to remain this way. There are strategies that governments can use to cut the head off of the disinformation phenomena and help to foster an environment of openness and facts. South Korea has utilized this to a good degree of success and managed to stave off the extremely unhealthy levels of polarization seen in the US and elsewhere. These scandals and instances of corruption may have happened in Korea, but is it not better that they happen and are punished and prosecuted than the lack of action seen in the US? It is hard to say whether depolarization (or at least a stalemate) will last, but it does give hope that depolarization in this modern disinformation era is not only a goal to reach for, but a strategic model that has worked and can achieve results.
Applebaum, Anne, and Peter Pomerantsev. “How to Put out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 Mar. 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/the-internet-doesnt-have-to-be-awful/618079/?fbclid=IwAR12KkEHrspn1MuVh7-2119Qj8U8IXXi_2LZEb9Mmlqsc-HNAqhWOhZ1PLE&utm_source=pocket_mylist.
Pomerantsev, Peter. “The Disinformation Age: A Revolution in Propaganda.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 July 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/27/the-disinformation-age-a-revolution-in-propaganda.
Tworek, Heidi, and Yoojung Lee. “Lessons from South Korea’s Approach to Tackling Disinformation.” Brookings, Brookings, 12 July 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/lessons-from-south-koreas-approach-to-tackling-disinformation/.
Yim, Seok-Hoi, and Yong-Woo Lee. “Social polarization and its spatial characteristics: the case of Seoul, South Korea.” Journal of the Korean association of regional geographers 8.2 (2002): 270-279.