Korean Democracy Is Sinking Under the Guise of the Rule of Law

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Opposing political rallies converge in South Korea
Pro- and anti-Moon protests in Seocho-dong, South Korea – October 5, 2019.
Photo credit: 
Dong-a Ilbo, Shindonga

There is a Korean expression that means “to become soaked by a drizzle without noticing.” This metaphor is a timely warning against the gradual decline of democratic norms. Though some of the changes underlying this global phenomenon are subtle, they are producing creeping, piecemeal erosions of democracy and pluralism. The signs of democratic backsliding are now emerging everywhere in South Korean society, and a failure to recognize and robustly counter their effects may create future costs that prove unbearable. 

My new article, “Korean Democracy Is Sinking Under the Guise of the Rule of Law,” published in the April 2020 issue of the South Korean magazine Shindonga (New East Asia, the oldest monthly in Korea), examines how the Moon administration is sinking into a democratic recession and considers its actions as a case study with lessons for averting broader, global trends in democratic decline.

In all corners of the world, we witness freely elected leaders gradually dismantle democratic institutional safeguards, fuse political polarization with chauvinistic populism, and focus on narrow interpretations of the national interest just as China and Russia expand their scope of influence via “sharp power,” subversive means.

Chairman of the South Korean National Assembly Moon Hee-sang (second from the left of the chairman's seat) enacts a draft amendment to the election law amid vigorous resistance by members of the opposition –December 23, 2019. 
Chairman of the South Korean National Assembly Moon Hee-sang (second from the left of the chairman's seat) enacts a draft amendment to the election law amid vigorous resistance by members of the opposition –December 23, 2019.  Dong-a Ilbo, Shindonga
South Korea is no exception to these currents. A politics of extreme confrontation and polarizing rhetoric of "us" and "them" are becoming the country’s new normal. The Moon administration’s aggressive assertion of a Manichean logic of good and evil that justifies their vitriolic attacks on perceived opposition is evidenced in its campaign of “eradicating deep-rooted evils” from Korean society and politics.

As my analysis shows, this crusading mindset has insinuated itself into more concrete actions by the Moon government, such as the calculated blurring of the separation of powers through political interference in the courts, deliberate changes to longstanding election laws that damage the spirit of democracy, and the blatant use of double standards and ideological loyalty in the execution of national policies. Similar patterns are taking hold in populist governments the world over, and – perhaps most disconcertingly – they transpire not through the strong-arming of a military coup or violent political disruption but through the legal procedures and policies meant to keep such canker in check.

To overcome its wave of democratic recession South Korea must cast away political polarization and demonstrate a firm resolve to act in accordance with democratic norms. The upcoming April 15 legislative election must sound a clear alarm against all actors who damage these core principles, regardless of their party affiliation and irrespective of their ideology. 

Read the complete English translation of my article or the original Korean version here: