Democracy in Korea regressed under Yoon: research

President Yoon Suk Yeol delivers a commemorative address during a ceremony marking the 105th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement at the Memorial Hall of Yu Gwan-sun in Seoul, March 1. Yonhap

President Yoon Suk Yeol delivers a commemorative address during a ceremony marking the 105th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement at the Memorial Hall of Yu Gwan-sun in Seoul, March 1. Yonhap

By Lee Hae-rin

Korea has experienced a “downward slope” in its democratic process since President Yoon Suk Yeol took office, according to a Sweden-based political science research institute. The regression is attributed to the government’s measures to penalize figures associated with the previous administration, its assaults on gender equality, and its undermining of freedom of expression.

The Democracy Report 2024 released Thursday by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg stated that Korea scored 0.6 on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) and ranked 47th among 179 countries in the world for its level of democracy.

Korea stands out as a rare case of “re-autocratization,” alongside Indonesia and Myanmar, where democracy regressed, and key indicators reverted to pre-democratization levels. Last year, Korea held the 28th position with an LDI score of 0.73.

V-Dem’s LDI utilizes a scale from zero to one, which assesses both electoral and liberal aspects of democracy. It takes into account voting rights, the freedom and fairness of elections, civil liberties, freedoms of association and expression, as well as social equality.

The annual report listed Korea among the six East Asian countries experiencing democratic regression, alongside Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

An example of Korea’s democratic progress was the massive corruption scandal in 2016 involving then-President Park Geun-hye, which sparked large-scale protests, with millions of citizens taking to the streets, that ultimately led to her removal from office.

“The next President Moon Jae-in was a human rights activist during the previous military dictatorship. He turned Korea back to its pre-Park LDI levels,” the report said.

However, after Moon’s five-year term, the conservative Yoon administration assumed power, marking a shift in trajectory. The report noted that this change in leadership set Korea back on a downward slope. It underscored Yoon’s coercive measures to penalize members of the former Moon administration and highlighted attacks on gender equality as key factors contributing to the country’s democratic regression.

The report referred to Yoon’s move to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which was one of his most controversial campaign pledges. After accepting the resignation of Gender Equality Minister Kim Hyun-sook last month, the president decided to leave the position unfilled as a sign of his commitment to abolish the ministry as planned, with women’s groups denouncing this as pandering to young male voters critical of the recent rise of feminism in the country.

Additionally, Korea was among 20 countries with increasing levels of media censorship by governments.

“Greece and Korea are examples that also demonstrate that undermining of freedom of expression and the media are far from reserved for countries that are becoming harsh autocracies,” the report said

The autocratization of global powers, such as Korea and India, which have large regional economic influence or populations, “adds to the heft of the current wave of autocratization,” the report warned.

The level of democracy enjoyed by the average person worldwide last year is down to 1985 levels, the report said.

Some 71 percent of the world population, or 5.7 billion people, live under autocracies. The figure is up from 48 percent 10 years ago and leaves only 29 percent of the world population, or 2.3 billion people, living in liberal and electoral democracies.

“Almost all components of democracy,” such as freedom of expression and elections, “are getting worse in more countries than they are getting better, compared to 10 years ago,” the report said.

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