An expert's point of view on a current event.

Is South Korea Regressing Into a Dictatorship?

President Park Geun-hye is squelching protests, suing journalists, and jailing opposition politicians.

XXX during the opening ceremony of the 20th National Assembly on June 10, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea.
XXX during the opening ceremony of the 20th National Assembly on June 10, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea.

The latest blow to free speech and assembly in South Korea came on July 4, when the leader of the country’s influential Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was found guilty of orchestrating an illegal demonstration. A Seoul court sentenced Han Sang-gyun to five years in prison and a $436 fine for organizing a massive Nov. 14 anti-government protest in downtown Seoul, as well as other demonstrations dating back to 2012. Amnesty International characterized the case as part of the “shrinking right to freedom of peaceful assembly in South Korea.”

Indeed, lively, and often violent, street protest has been a national sport in South Korea since the country’s founding in 1948. And until the early 1990s, when the election of opposition leader Kim Young-sam ended more than 40 years of authoritarian rule, the repression of protests was common as well. But over the last few years, the country has regressed. Since taking office on Feb. 25, 2013, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her Saenuri Party have sued journalists, jailed labor leaders and opposition politicians, censored the press, and dissolved political parties. Aiding her has been a network of right-wing organizations, as well as the country’s intelligence agency — the National Intelligence Service (NIS) — which sent out millions of illegal tweets in favor of Park during the 2012 election.

The conventional view is that this propensity for dictatorial powers comes from Park’s upbringing: She is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the South Korean general who launched a coup in 1961, set himself up as head of a military junta, and was then elected president in 1963.

Thus began an 18-year reign, characterized by massive economic growth coupled with severe repression — including arbitrary arrest, widespread torture, executions, and martial law. Park’s rule ended only when his own intelligence chief assassinated him in 1979. Today, Park the elder’s legacy is deeply divisive. Many older Koreans see him as a savior who created prosperity and strengthened the country against what was then a more advanced North Korea. Others, especially younger Koreans, simply view him as a tyrant.

The current president, born in 1952, grew up in this environment. At 22, she rose to national prominence after a North Korean agent assassinated her mother, Yuk Young-soo, with a bullet meant for the president. Park’s dreams of being a university professor were dashed, as she assumed the duties of first lady. After her father’s murder, Park withdrew from public life for almost two decades. She returned to government in 1998 and was elected to the country’s legislature, the National Assembly. In 2007, she unsuccessfully ran for her party’s presidential candidacy. But in 2012, Park won both the nomination and the presidency, beating Moon Jae-in of the liberal Minjoo Party. Voters then described the intensely private Park as “good-hearted, calm, and trustworthy” — someone who can “save our country.”

Park is the first female president of South Korea, no small feat in a country with many of the lowest indices in the developed world for women’s equality. Indeed, many conservative male voters elected her — despite her gender — because of her association with her father.

Since taking power, Park has not disappointed the conservatives who miss her father’s muscular rule. Park argues she has to be tough to deal with the thugs in Pyongyang’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, who have repeatedly made disgusting and sexist attacks against her, threatened to destroy South Korea (and the United States), tested nuclear weapons and medium- and long-range missiles in violation of U.N. sanctions, and generally lived up to their reputation as very, very bad neighbors.

But the North Korean menace is widely felt to be contained and isn’t high on the minds of most South Koreans. However, that hasn’t stopped Park from developing an uncanny ability to find communists under every pillow and mattress in the country. It’s a common slur in South Korea to accuse anyone mildly progressive of being jongbuk — a pro-Pyongyang apparatchik — but it has reached a fever pitch under Park.

In December 2014, the Ministry of Justice caused the disbanding of the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), a minor left-wing party with five seats in the National Assembly, for being pro-Pyongyang. It was the first time since 1958 that the government had forced a political party to disband. The UPP insisted it was simply in favor of closer ties between the two Koreas. But the Justice Ministry accused two key members of planning a rebellion to support North Korea in the event of a war — and a court sentenced one of them to 12 years in jail. The prominent Saenuri politician Choi Kyung-hwan said the party was only one of many “poisonous mushrooms” that “must be rooted out.”

Park also sees communists lurking in academia, especially among historians who write middle and high school history textbooks. Conservatives claim the texts unduly criticize South Korea’s past dictators, including Park’s father, as torturers and pro-Japanese collaborators. That they were both these things is irrelevant; children need to be indoctrinated with “correct historical views and values,” Park says — presumably, her own.

The government plans to replace the eight state-approved texts currently available with a single state-written text, which the Ministry of Education will force all schools to use. The final draft of the textbook is not available yet, but one assumes it will be much like the textbook drafted by conservative scholars in 2013, which was approved by the government but which virtually no schools use because of its clear bias.

Meanwhile, Park has sought to discourage or eliminate critical coverage of her and her government by battering press freedom. In 2014, the government indicted Tatsuya Kato, the Seoul bureau chief for the popular Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun. They claimed his story questioning the president’s activities on the day of the April 2014 Sewol ferry disaster — in which more than 300 passengers, mostly high school students, died, allegedly because of mismanagement from both the ferry company and the central government — amounted to criminal defamation. (He was later acquitted.) Kim Ou-joon and Choo Chin-woo, two independent reporters, were tried for criminal defamation for insinuating that the president’s brother, Park Ji-man, was involved in a cover-up of his cousin’s murder in 2011. They were acquitted in January 2015, after their second trial.

The list goes on: The government sued the left-wing newspaper Hankyoreh over a report that the president staged a photograph at the ferry disaster. They have also sued the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest paper, over a story regarding high-level appointments. And they are suing the Unification Church-owned Segye Ilbo tabloid for a story critical of Park’s former chief of staff.

As a result, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based free press watchdog, ranked the country 70 out of 180 in its most recent World Press Freedom Index, down 10 places from 2015, and the lowest for South Korea since RSF began tabulating the index in 2002. “The government has displayed a growing inability to tolerate criticism and its meddling in the already polarized media threatens their independence,” the group wrote. All this has led to a climate of fear and self-censorship in newsrooms across the country, as journalists worry they will have to call their lawyers next.

Rowdy public protest is as Korean as kimchi, but over the past three years, Park’s government has severely abrogated that right, too. Nov. 14, 2015, saw the biggest anti-government protests in a decade, where, despite the rain, an estimated 80,000 people took to the streets of Seoul. The government declared the demonstration illegal, however, and police dispersed it with tear gas and water cannons, spraying dye so protesters could be identified and rounded up later. (It was for his help planning and participating in this demonstration that Han was arrested.)

Saenuri Party spokesman Kim Yong-woo identified the protesters as pro-North Korean agents (surprise, surprise) and said the demonstrations were “impure.” Park, meanwhile, told a cabinet meeting that protesters who wear masks should be banned. Why? Because Islamic State terrorists also wear masks. Park seems unconcerned, however, about conservative protesters, who have disrupted left-wing rallies and have even gone so far as to eat pizza in front of the hunger-striking families of children who died on the Sewol ferry. (In fairness, conservative protests have been much smaller.)

It’s become a cliché on the left to compare Park’s ruling style to her father’s. Yes, the comparison is overstated — Park the younger has not tortured or hanged anyone or overthrown a democratically elected government in a coup. But while the torture and killing has not returned, the clampdown on freedom has.

It’s done in the name of anti-communism, but North Korea isn’t the biggest concern of South Koreans today; it’s inequality, job opportunities, and realizing a decent standard of living. Park has failed to address these concerns and, as a result, needs someone to blame. Liberals and communists will do just fine.

Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images