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.
I really enjoyed your blog post! I must admit I did not know much about South Korean politics but your blog post made it easy to follow along. I think it is interesting how South Korea was able to go from an authoritarian rule, to a democracy in 1987 as a result of mass protests. Another interesting point was how in the elections of 2017, it was uncovered that Park Geun-Hye was using the strategy of fake social media profiles to smear the opposition. It is fascinating to me how we are so invested in technology and social media that it is now used as a campaign strategy. I really like how you acknowledge however that disinformation can be damaging to democracy. I would like to know if you think South Korea could have done more when it came to their COVID-19 campaign? Great article thank you!
Your post was very insightful and left me with much to think about! It seems that South Korea’s history of polarization began with economic inequality. But while that decreased over time, polarization has returned in our contemporary era, as a result of disinformation. This is seen with the nation’s political scandals, impeachment trials, and finally with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the South Korea example also shows that there are ways to combat polarization through disinformation, in our new digital age. Disinformation is a significant contributor towards democratic erosion. And in the case of South Korea, the internet acted as a catalyst for mobilization and outrage over disinformation. At the same time, effective government control over disinformation may lead to lower polarization. This post brings to light how depolarization in our modern disinformation era is a strategic model that can be achieved. One question I have is, do you think that increased control over disinformation may eventually lead to stronger forms of censorship? Thank you for your insight!
This is an interesting post! I was not too familiar with South Korean politics, and I wasn’t even aware of President Park Geun-Hye impeachment. I do find it interesting that there is a conscious effort to stifle corruption in South Korea given that those directly connected to the investigation of Park. I also found it interesting how Park used social media to influence the election, given that social media is commonly used today. It is also worrisome that the power of social media is so strong that this kind of influence can happen. Do you think that a scandal like this could happen again in South Korea? I would like to your thoughts. Thank you for such a great post!
Great read. We know that depolarization goes on throughout the world, but it’s good to get a breakdown on the different places on how they became polarized, and what they did to depolarize. One of the main takeaways that I see is a fluctuation of polarization over the years in South Korea. We tend to think that polarization happens mainly certain ways, but as we can see, that’s not the case. From civil unrest, to the Government hearing their citizens cry, the country became depolarized. Things took an economic downturn, and that’s itself can cause polarization as well. We have seen this happen in many countries. Pandemic’s and the abuse of power when it comes to the control of media and free speech are very detrimental channels of creating polarization. The media and political actors can have a very large influence on the minds of the people, which can then sway elections and policies. That’s a big deal. Thanks for sharing.
This post was very interesting. I did not know too much about South Korea before reading this post. I think the inclusion of how South Korea became depolarized was very helpful in understanding how polarization/depolarization varies throughout the world. I think talking about how the pandemic has been impacted by depolarization and vise versa is a great way to tie into current events. I believe as the pandemic carries on, we could see how depolarization changes as a result of these unprecedented times. Overall, I think this post had some great information and I cannot wait to see what happens next in South Korea.
What a post! The very first thing I must admit is my lack of knowledge of South Korea. Your post made me travel there and I could picture how the events happened through your words. Compared to other countries South Korea had its own course of events. As a result of mass protests, South Korea was able to transform from an authoritarian rule to democracy in 1987. I find it fascinating how a country that had been under the authoritarian rule as recently as 1950 became a democracy in 1987. Talking about the pandemic, in this case, was very thoughtful. Before your post, I wouldn’t believe that there could be a link between the two. One more thing, media has played a huge part in this process. As the world evolves I would say that polarization/depolarization is changing the ways it happens.
What a post! The very first thing I must admit is my lack of knowledge of South Korea. Your post made me travel there and I could picture how the events happened through your words. I find it fascinating how a country that had been under the authoritarian rule as recently as 1950 became a democracy in 1987. Talking about the pandemic, in this case, was very thoughtful. Before your post, I wouldn’t believe that there could be a link between the two. One more thing, media has played a huge part in this process. As the world evolves I would say that polarization/depolarization is changing the ways it happens.
Much of the current scholarship on polarization is quite bleak, but it is interesting that you provided an example of an “off ramp.” What struck me was the effectiveness of governmental authorities intervening in order to solve issues such as corruption, especially when ignoring such issues can be advantageous. One has to wonder though, if a similar model could be exported to other nations facing similar issues.
I enjoyed reading this article as it concisely traces South Korea’s process for dealing with polarization since the conception of its 1987 Constitution. Specifically, I found the comparison with the US helpful in that it highlights similarities across nations in terms of the major factors that contribute to growing mass polarization, such as the media. The salient difference between the US and South Korea which Zirock points out is the gatekeeping role that South Korean institutions and courts played. I was not aware of the well coordinated effort that its government undertook to impede disinformation by implementing a strategy of transparency. However, one question this strategy of transparency raises concerns the protection of human rights of the people of South Korea. In particular, the human right to privacy has been at the center of much debate regarding the new strategies that some democratic governments implement in order to control for variables within emergency situations, such as the current pandemic. Although the primary objective of these coordinated efforts is to reduce the spread of the virus, it is also important to consider whether they may at times infringe upon the rights of citizens within a democratic society.