When considering democratic backsliding, South Korea’s case is not necessarily the one with the most backsliding, but it is important to consider. While the Candlelit Revolution itself is the people utilizing their rights in order to organize and have free speech, the leader that came to power after the revolution was a populist. Following the revolution, where people wanted to make a stand against the corrupt elite, it’s clear why a leader that favored the public to an anti-elitist degree was voted into power. The policies that former South Korean President Moon Jae-in enacted following the Candlelit Revolution show signs of populism creeping in to create democratic backsliding.
It’s important to discuss how populism can contribute to democratic backsliding. Populism essentially means two things. First, it tends to slowly lead to an autocracy as the populist leader wishes to uphold what they promised their people. Second, it leads to an individual holding large amounts of power especially in democracies as they can claim that everything they do is what the people want. Populism essentially exploits democracy to form a government where the leader is allegedly acting as the people want, but slowly corrupts the system into becoming more and more autocratic. Populist leaders will generally look to silence and eliminate the opposition and establish their rule as the only one who can give what the people want. One way this is achieved is via politicization of the courts to extend the influence of their rule past their term. Another way is to establish fake news laws that can be utilized to restrict the speech of the opposition.
To first explain how Moon Jae-in was put into power, it is important to discuss the Candlelit Revolution and why it took place to begin with. The president during the time of the revolution was Park Geun-hye. She was abusing government power and leaking vulnerable government secrets by confiding in the daughter of a shaman, Choi Soon-sil. The shaman allegedly helped Park communicate with the spirits of her parents, which is why Park trusted Choi. This led to Choi using this power to influence Park’s policy choices as well as make deals with big businesses like Samsung. As a result of this, Park ended up taking bribes for social and political favors, which drove the Korean population into revolution. This revolution was a set of marches that took place over numerous weeks in order to protest corruption and demand the impeachment of the president.
At the end of the Candlelit Revolution, a new president, Moon Jae-in was put into power. This transition of power was peaceful, but he was elected on populist promises. Rather than focus on an “insiders vs outsiders” or an ethnic “us vs them” mentality with populists, Moon went for a “common people vs the elites” view. Much of the politics in South Korea has been less about parties competing against each other and more about civil society against the state. Moon appealed to the masses who, after the impeachment of Park, wanted the common people to have their say, even going to call his rule as “the candlelit government”. Moon’s policy promises also benefited the common people, as he promised expanded rights to new labor laws. However, this came at a cost.
Looking at Moon’s policy choices highlights how populism can contribute to backsliding even further. From politicizing the courts to laws about “fake news”, democratic backsliding was very present throughout Moon’s presidency. Starting with how Moon politicized the courts, he was able to appoint ten out of 14 justices on the supreme court, with the potential to appoint three more that would be sympathetic to his viewpoints. While all of these appointments were legal, having the ability to fill almost the entire court with people who would normally vote alongside Moon’s party and its policies vastly limits the options of the opposition or the minority. It would be almost impossible to get a court to vote impartially when over half the court had been appointed by a single president to fit his political ideals. Even when the populist leaves office, a court that is politicized easily allows for another member of their party to step up and carry on the mantle. In the case that any opposition party was elected, they would face a difficult time causing any change with a politicized court.
Secondly, Moon’s idea to even create a fake news bill highlights populist ideas. Silencing the opposition and ensuring their ideas cannot spread means that the populist can further show how they can be the only one to lead the people. In essence, the law enables courts to apply harsh punishments onto media that reports fake news. However, the fines were up to five times the damages with no clear definition at all of what might be considered as fake news. Had this bill passed, the government may have been able to abuse it to silence opposing media. They would have been able to have complete control over what information the media is able to tell. Any media source that even attempted to oppose it could have been deemed as “fake news” and massively penalized. Fake news laws like this ultimately silence discussion of viewpoints as the media is fearful of penalties that could be imposed. While this bill was ultimately shelved, the potential consequences of it had it been passed shows the issue of populism in Moon’s presidency. The fact that it was even considered signifies the presence of democratic backsliding. It highlights just how populist leaders can use democratic means to approach authoritarianism and advance their own agendas.
All in all, the Candlelit Revolution was intended to stop government corruption and put someone in power who would listen to the people. Unfortunately, the person who did end up in power turned out to be a populist. With successful politicization of the courts and attempts to silence opposition, it’s clear that backsliding was present with the populist president. His policies did improve quality of life for the masses with higher minimum wages and less hours required for work per week with other rights expansions as well. However, it does not change the fact that he wanted to become the only one who could speak for the people. As such, this made him shift closer to being an authoritarian leader and can be one example of why populism leads to backsliding, even when monitored and partially stopped.