The fusion of political polarization and populism is characteristic of the trend of democratic recession sweeping the globe. Be it Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, or Narendra Modi, contemporary populist leaders are winning through populist appeals that promote chauvinistic nationalism. While populist sentiments often emerge from hyper-conservative factions of right-wing parties, liberal, leftist governments are in no way immune to power grabs fueled by nationalistic fervor. This is precisely the situation that is unfolding in South Korea and driven by the Moon Jae In’s government, fears APARC and the Korea Program Director Gi-Wook Shin.
In “South Korea's Democratic Decay,” published in the Journal of Democracy, Shin warns that the current administration in South Korea is “more than a little drunk on its own sense of moral superiority.” Moon and his administration came to power in 2017 following the impeachment of then-president Park Geun Hye on corruption charges. Their campaign rallied around the cry to “eradicate deep-rooted evils” from Korean society and politics. The rhetoric was massively popular and easily won Moon the election.
According to Shin, Korea is following the same precarious path many democracies have stumbled on to in recent years. He explains the insidious danger of leaders like Moon: they come to power through legitimate, established democratic processes, but once in power, the chauvinistic populism and seemingly righteous dogma that fueled their campaign becomes a tool for eroding democracy from within. Though not as outwardly dramatic as a regime change or military coup, the result is just as damaging to democratic ideals.
In South Korea’s case, the politicization of the court system serves as a prime example of this subtle subversion. To date, Moon has named 10 of the fourteen-member Supreme Court and will have an opportunity to appoint three more before the end of his term. He has also named eight of the nine judges to the Constitutional Court. Many of these appointees have left-wing connections, and some even openly echo the administration’s rhetoric to “expel deep-rooted evils.” Many of the judges and prosecutors were appointed from partisan positions, and many have entered politics immediately following their tenures in law using a loophole in the 2017 amendment of the Korean Prosecutor’s Act.
The appointments follow the letter of the law and fall within the purview of the executive office, but the clear partisanship at work is at odds with the spirit of democratic tradition. While it technically breaks no laws, it calls into question the impartiality of the courts, the legitimacy of the law, and the separation of powers within the government.
Similarly, the administration plays favoritism with the standards of free speech, another essential element of democracy. Free speech and a politically active society served Moon Jae In well in 2017 when protestors and an ultra-loyal cohort of civically-engaged citizens propelled him to victory. But in 2018, Moon’s government declared a “war on fake news.” Rather than expunge falsehoods, it used this effort to stifle voices critical of the administration both in and outside of Korea. In February 2020, the Democratic Party sued a professor for her newspaper op-ed urging people to vote against Moon. In 2018, the U.S.-Korea Institute, a Johns-Hopkins-affiliated think tank, closed after the Moon administration ended financial support to the institution, citing concerns its directors were “too conservative.”
These actions are indications that Korea is slipping towards a “democratic depression,” says Shin. “Both the spirit of democracy and actual liberal-democratic standards are under attack,” he writes. “Opponents are demonized, democratic norms are eroded, and political life only grows more polarized.”
Left shaken by COVID-19, the trajectory of the country is uncertain. Still in control of the executive, with supportive judges stacked in the judiciary and control of a majority of seats in the legislature, there are few checks left to balance Moon’s ambitions and aggressive reforms. Though he was elected as a champion against corruption and authoritarianism, Moon’s dismantling of democratic norms now leaves him teetering on the edge of becoming the thing he promised to eradicate.
On whether or not Korea can arrest its slide towards a democratically-sanctioned regime, Shin says, “For Korea to have a chance at overcoming the polarizing forces that are pulling it apart, the president must hold himself to a higher standard. Nothing but democratic ideals hold the power to revive a politics of concord big and strong enough to contain the politics of anger and revenge.”