South Korea is still extremely young in its democracy compared to the rest of the developed world, becoming a democracy post Korean War around 1950. Nonetheless, the inexperience in regard to democratic culture and norms did not stop them from being one of the highest rated countries in terms of freedom/democracy scores in measures such as the Freedom House and the V-Dem Project within half a century. However, over the last decade, specifically under the lead of 12th President Moon Jae-In, South Korean journalists and academics alike have started to develop a fear of ever growing signs pointing towards South Korea’s decline in democratic standards.
Signs of democratic erosion have started to leak into the politics of South Korea. This fact is undeniable with rallies of Pro and Anti-Moon supporters and a culture of mistrust between political parties growing throughout the presidency of Moon Jae-In. Moon has continued to use a rhetoric of “Good” vs “Evil” which continues to delegitimize opposition and paint an ever-grimmer picture to the state of South Korea’s democracy.
Are all these signs calls for panic and concern within South Korea? The numbers are currently pointing towards “No”. The Freedom House has marked South Korea as one of the most stable democracies with a score between 80-85/100 over the last two decades. The V-Dem Project only showed a significant drop during the major corruption scandal where President Park Geun-Hye was impeached and convicted on corruption charges in 2018. The scores have since stabilized and are now in an even higher position compared to where they were before the impeachment in 2018. Most NGO measurements of democracy in South Korea are showing a lack of significant decline in democratic norms in the country and paint a picture of stability.
However, if there was ever a time to learn from your allies, now is the time. South Korea’s political landscape is becoming eerily similar to that of the United States. If we think about the 2008 and 2016 Presidential elections in the U.S and compare them to the two most recent presidential elections in South Korea, the parallels are uncanny. In 2008, Obama was elected after one of the most infamous instances of media and public manipulation (Iraq War) started to come to the light of the public, leading then President George W. Bush into one of the lowest approval ratings of a sitting president with 28% in 2007. This major political backlash lead to the election of the opposing party’s representative of Barack Obama, similar to the election of Democratic party candidate Moon Jae-In in South Korea after the impeachment of Conservative President Park Geun-Hye. With distrust in institutions and government in both the South Korean public under Moon, and the U.S public under Obama, the fires of populism began to develop in both situations, with the reaction being exactly the same. The U.S elected their 45th President Donald. J Trump, which ended up degrading the democratic institutions and norms of the U.S to a much more significant degree compared to anything that developed in South Korea over the last two decades. Now the South Korean public has just elected Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative political outsider that supports ideas such abolishing Korea’s Gender Equality Ministry, and has huge support from young male voters and right wing populists, sound familiar?
The parallels are almost undeniable, and in my opinion, if the COVID-19 crisis did not negatively effect Trump as much as it did, he would have won the 2020 Election vs Joe Biden. Currently, Joe Biden is restoring at least some faith in democratic institutions, along with his and the Democrats’ significant overperformance in the 2022 midterms. This overperformance especially has started to display the significant decline in Trump’s populist politics specifically in the U.S, putting them back on the rise in metrics such as the Freedom House. However, who knows how much further democracy would have eroded under a second term of Donald Trump, and an ever-increasing popularity for right-wing populism. Unless President Yoon heavily underperforms in an area, or is exposed in a massive scandal, his re-election is very possibly due to incumbent advantage. South Korea could witness a political culture that the U.S never did, a prospect that is extremely concerning considering the situation the U.S was in just 2-3 years ago.
Now if I was living in South Korea right now, I would not panic. Democracy is not going to crumble overnight, and President Yoon is not going to turn the country into Armageddon, however, I would stay alert. Stay observant on the rhetoric and actions of President Yoon and his supporters, and make sure to develop your own views and opinions on issues. Stay educated and independent and speak up when you find it necessary. Stay strong.