In South Korea, President-elect Yoon Suk-Yeol is preparing to enter office after his victory in the March presidential election. It has been disquieting to observe these events unfold back home from here in California. A new administration will soon begin its term, but I feel more apprehension than hope for the future. In many ways, South Korea in 2022 is remarkably similar to the United States in 2020. Just as the United States experienced a crisis of democracy under the Trump administration, South Korea underwent a democratic recession during President Moon Jae-in’s time in office. The consequences of this decline have been evident throughout the election and the subsequent presidential transition. Will Captain Yoon Suk-Yeol be able to turn the ship around and set South Korea’s democracy on a path to recovery?
This essay seeks not only to evaluate the decline of South Korea’s democracy over the past 10 years from a comparative perspective but also to provide an outside view of the historic tasks facing the Yoon administration as it prepares to set sail.
The 2020 U.S. presidential election was a pitched battle between pro- and anti-Trump forces. Similarly, this year’s presidential election in South Korea was marked by extreme confrontation between supporters and opponents of the Moon administration. From the outset, there was no room to discuss substantive issues or competing policy visions. In both cases, a coalition of opposition forces won a narrow victory after a bruising election campaign. Joe Biden and Yoon Suk-Yeol were nominated as candidates not necessarily because they provided new visions or possessed appealing leadership qualities, but rather because they were regarded as the best people to achieve a transfer of power. Moreover, the entire election campaign was marred by vicious mudslinging in both countries. Instead of discussing a blueprint for the future, there was a focus on rendering a political judgement on the incumbent. Trump left office after a single term, and Korea’s Democratic Party (KDP) handed over the reins of power to the opposition People Power Party (PPP) after only five years.
The second similarity is that South Korea’s ruling party had been expected to comfortably win the election, as was the case for Trump. At the beginning of 2020, Trump was widely favored to win a second term, while the Democratic Party was in disarray as multiple contenders vied for the candidacy. The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic then shifted the political winds against Trump, who was defeated by opposition forces under Joe Biden’s leadership. In Korea, the ruling KDP appeared to be on course to retain the presidency after a string of decisive victories in the 2018 local elections and the 2020 legislative elections. Some even anticipated that the KDP could hold power for twenty years. However, policy failures on pocketbook issues, including skyrocketing housing prices, coupled with the double standards and moral failures of high-level officials and leading party figures, turned the tide against the government. In the end, the KDP was unable to overcome this sea change in public opinion. The shock of defeat would have been compounded by the fact that the opposition candidate at the eye of this political storm was a former prosecutor general whom they had appointed.
Third, in both cases, the presidential election was or will be immediately followed by a crucial election that could determine the political fate of the new administration. In the United States, there were Senate elections in Georgia shortly before Biden entered office in January 2021. The Democratic Party gained both seats after a fiercely contested race, thus narrowly winning control of the Senate. This provided a political basis for the Biden administration to pursue its policy agenda. In South Korea, there will be local elections on June 1, less than a month after Yoon begins his term. Although the PPP won a close victory in the presidential election, it does not have a majority in the National Assembly. The outcome of the local elections will have a powerful impact on the new administration’s ability to govern effectively.
Fourth, the presidential transition was anything but smooth. Trump refused to concede the election and launched a legal challenge against the election results, resulting in an unprecedented, violent takeover of Congress by his most fervent supporters. In South Korea, Lee Jae-Myung, the Democratic Party’s candidate, unequivocally conceded the election before all the votes had been counted. This initially provided some hope and relief that South Korea would not follow the path taken by the United States. However, it was not long before President-elect Yoon’s transition team and the outgoing Moon administration collided over a host of major issues, including relocating the presidential office, providing COVID-19 relief to small business owners, and filling high-level government positions. There is a broad similarity between the United States and South Korea in that both presidential transitions encountered significant obstacles.
Finally, both democratic norms and the spirit of democracy were betrayed under the guise of the rule of law. Trump defied a widely held norm by nominating a Supreme Court justice during an election year, while Moon attempted to fill key government positions during the presidential transition, including seats on the Board of Audit and Inspection’s inspection panel. Responding to public criticism, the Blue House stated that the sitting president has the de jure authority to make appointments to government positions. This is evidently true, but according to democratic norms and past practice, such appointments should wait until the incoming president takes office. At minimum, the incumbent should adequately consult and obtain the agreement of the president-elect before proceeding with “midnight” appointments.
The chaos and disarray on display during these elections and presidential transitions cannot be dismissed as passing aberrations. They are the result of a democratic decay that has taken place in South Korea and the United States for the past several years, one that should be taken seriously.
The democratic recession in the United States has received serious attention among academics and intellectuals. My colleagues at Stanford University, including Larry Diamond and Francis Fukuyama, have been actively sounding the alarm about worrying trends in the United States. I have also expressed my deep concerns in previous essays about an apparent backsliding of democracy in South Korea. In an April 2020 essay in Sindonga magazine, I warned that South Korea’s democracy was gradually crumbling, in a manner captured by the Korean expression “to become soaked by a light drizzle without noticing.” In an article published in the Journal of Democracy in July of the same year, I characterized the state of South Korea’s democracy as one of “democratic decay.”
Since the late 1980s, Korea has served as an exemplary case of the “third wave” of democratization, but its democracy has been in retreat since the 2010s. The Park Geun-hye administration (2013–17) regressed to an authoritarian mode of governance reminiscent of the Park Chung-Hee era, and she was ousted from power with impeachment. An obsolete model of authoritarianism à la Park Chung-Hee was constantly in tension with Korea’s democratic, pluralized civil society.
These tensions erupted in the Candlelight Protests of 2016 and 2017—a watershed moment in Korea’s political history. These protests demonstrated a recurring feature of Korea’s democratization since the late 1980s: a confrontation between the state and civil society. Instead of political parties competing with each other, civil society is pitted against the “state,” which includes political parties. Through the Candlelight Protests, Korea’s civil society rejected and ousted an authoritarian state once again.
The Moon Jae-In administration built its political legitimacy on these protests by calling itself the “candlelight government,” but it failed to faithfully uphold the demands of the protestors and presided over a period of democratic decay in South Korea. The regressive tendencies on display during this past election and the presidential transition should be understood in their wider historical context. Specifically, it is vital to consider three issues that have precipitated democratic decay in South Korea.
The first is illiberalism. As I note in Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), Korea was imbued with an extreme version of ethnic nationalism as it experienced colonial rule and national division on its path to modernity. Ethnic nationalism elevates the collective over the individual, unity over diversity. It was thus difficult for liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights and autonomy, to take root in Korea. The anti-communism of South Korea’s past authoritarian regimes and the chauvinistic anti-Japanese ideology of the Moon Jae-In administration both draw heavily from ethnic nationalism, which remains an incredibly powerful and attractive ideology to this day.
After the late 1980s, South Korea undoubtedly attained the status of a de jure democracy, with the requisite legal foundations. It is highly unlikely that it will regress to the authoritarianism of its past. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether liberal democracy has been firmly established in South Korea. As political scientist Yascha Mounk points out in The People vs. Democracy (2018), having the rule of law does not necessarily imply the existence of a liberal democracy.
A liberal democracy cannot be sustained merely upon the procedural legitimacy of the rule of law. Democratic norms and the spirit of democracy must also be honored. It is important to heed the warning of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors of political science at Harvard University, in their book How Democracies Die (2019): even without a revolution or a coup, democracy can gradually wither away if elected leaders violate democratic norms or the spirit of democracy.
South Korea and the United States are no exception. When the core democratic norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance are not respected, the procedural formalities of the rule of law alone cannot protect liberal democracy. Democratic decay is all but inevitable if a politics of hate and confrontation overwhelms toleration and compromise, and if the exercise of power becomes unbalanced and veers toward rampant abuse.
South Korea has unfortunately experienced democratic decay at the hands of a generation of politicians who, in their younger days, participated in pro-democracy activism. Ahn Byong-Jin, a noted progressive academic and a professor of political science at Kyunghee University, observes that the central figures of the Moon administration contributed to democratization by taking part in the struggle against authoritarianism, but they had no opportunities to learn or experience liberal values. In other words, they failed to internalize liberal democratic norms and values, such as individual freedoms and rights, mutual respect, and tolerance. They often conflated majoritarianism with democracy.
Choi Jang-Jip, professor emeritus at Korea University and a renowned scholar of Korean democracy, harshly criticized the generation of former pro-democracy activists for adopting a confrontational and divisive approach to politics even after assuming power. These politicians did not view the opposition as a partner in governing the country, instead treating it as an enemy that must be defeated at all costs. The progressive elements of South Korea’s civil society, which played a critical role in democratization, lost sight of their duty to act as a watchdog over government power and became a pipeline to political office. Former civil society activists filled key positions in the Blue House and the Cabinet. The policies they implemented—real estate regulations, income-led growth, and the phasing out of nuclear power—resulted in abysmal failures. Even so, they were intoxicated by an outmoded sense of moral superiority and thought of themselves as the “candlelight government,” while regarding the PPP and other opponents as an “old evil.” Far from upgrading South Korea’s democracy, they degraded it. Korean politics has descended into a sordid, partisan battle between good and evil. The extreme mudslinging on display during the recent presidential election revealed the consequences of this style of politics all too clearly.
The populist turn in Korea’s politics is another important factor contributing to democratic decay. The populism that is erupting across the world in the 21st century differs from previous forms of populism, which simply sought to appeal to public sentiment. Jan-Werner Müller, a political theorist at Princeton University, characterizes 21st-century populism as consisting of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. Anti-elitism attacks the elite, and anti-pluralism rejects coexistence with different political actors. The former fosters hatred toward party politics, and the latter leads to the demonization of opposing political forces. On top of this, advances in information technology and the development of social media platforms have enabled a culture of direct communication between populist leaders and their supporters, which is another defining characteristic of 21st-century populism. In this sense, Trumpism in the United States is the archetype of populism in the 21st century.
The Moon administration’s populist character was most clearly revealed in its campaign to “eradicate deep-rooted evils.” These “deep-rooted evils” refer to the ancien régime. Any obsolete order must, of course, be discarded. Those who engage in corruption or commit crimes must be punished. However, the boundary between the old order and the new order is ambiguous in South Korea’s politics and civil society.
The campaign to uproot the ancien régime should have been guided by what Jürgen Habermas labeled “self-limitation.” In other words, tasks that were essential to dismantling the old order should have been completed as promptly as possible, so that efforts could then be directed toward pursuing a new form of societal unity and integration. Unfortunately, the Moon administration’s all-encompassing campaign to eradicate the ancien régime lasted far too long, constraining Korea’s pluralistic liberal democracy in the process.
This year’s presidential election took place within this political and social milieu. As noted by sociologist Kim Ho-Ki of Yonsei University, a progressive academic, this election was the first presidential election since democratization in 1987 that was framed as a battle between old and new elites, no longer a struggle between pro-democratic and authoritarian political forces. Instead of the traditional archetype of a democratic leader who values compromise and cooperation, there was a clear preference for unrelenting “strongmen” from the outside who were not accustomed to the political logic of Yeouido and would forcefully battle anti-elite forces.
This type of leader values decisiveness and forceful action over deliberation and the ability to foster compromise. It is not a coincidence that Lee and Yoon were chosen as the respective candidates of the ruling and leading opposition parties. They persistently attacked each other as the “old” elite or the “new” elite, rejecting toleration and coexistence.
Following the global financial crisis of 2008, the issue of inequality—particularly in the form of deepening economic polarization—was widely discussed around the world. Both the IMF and the OECD stressed the importance of reducing economic polarization. However, the issue of political polarization also merits close attention. Countries across the world are suffering from this malaise, which is inextricably tied to economic polarization. South Korea is part of this global trend. The dearth of liberal values and the emergence of populism, as noted above, amplified political polarization. In 2019, there were rallies by the Moon-ppa, ardent supporters of President Moon, near the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office in Seocho-dong. At the same time, there were anti-Moon rallies by the so-called Taegukgi brigade at Gwanghwamun Plaza in the heart of Seoul, named after the national flag they wave at their rallies. The extreme confrontation exemplified by these competing rallies showed that political polarization was taking root as South Korea’s new normal.
As mutual distrust between individuals and groups deepened, a partisan, Manichean logic of good and evil took hold. The symptoms of democratic decay became noticeable in many corners of Korean society. Pluralistic norms, such as agreeing to disagree and seeking commonalities while acknowledging differences, vanished. There was only “us” and “them.” The anti-pluralism and anti-elitism inherent in illiberalism and populism transform politics into a ruthless battle for power between opposing camps, each defined by common beliefs and sentiments. Because South Korea has a powerful presidency fused with a winner-takes-all electoral system, presidential elections are inevitably framed as a contest between those seeking to retain power and those seeking to reclaim it at all costs.
This partisan war manifests as a culture war, as conceptualized by James Hunter, or identity politics, as described by Francis Fukuyama. Hunter argued that American society was split into two irreconcilable camps based on “hot-button” issues such as abortion, separation of church and state, homosexuality, and gun rights. A culture war may arise for many reasons, and its particular form can differ between countries. The form and intensity of a culture war are determined by the nature of socioeconomic policies aimed at addressing inequality, the extent of societal and cultural toleration for minorities, and whether political institutions foster majoritarian or consensus-based politics.
A culture war gains explosive power when it is channeled into identity politics. Identity refers to the thoughts, emotions, and ideologies that provide an individual with a sense of self. Traditional forms of institutionalized politics are being replaced by identity politics, which expresses resentment and resistance toward a status quo that disregards or rejects elements of one’s identity, be it religion, race, nation, or gender. This trend has been especially pronounced in the 21st century.
The appearance of political fandoms, in which supporters only pay attention to information that reinforces their existing attitudes, cannot be adequately understood in isolation from the emergence of identity politics. In today’s post-truth era, subjective beliefs matter more than objective facts. The subjective beliefs that underlie political and cultural identities influence the thoughts and actions of individual citizens at least as much as economic and material interests.
As South Korea’s culture war grows ever more intense, identity politics is also becoming increasingly prominent. In this vein, the appearance of political fandoms among progressives and the deployment of gender politics among conservatives is far from surprising. On the left, an online community called Nosamo (“People Who Love Roh Moo-Hyun”) in the early 2000s gave way to the Moon-ppa. This year’s election has given rise to the so-called gae-ddal (“daughters for reform”), referring to women in their 20s and 30s who have thrown their support behind the Democratic Party. There is a parallel genealogy on the right. An association called the Parksamo (“People Who Love Park Geun-Hye”) was followed by the Taegukgi brigade. Most recently, yidaenam (“men in their 20s”) coalesced as a political force during this year’s election. As political “tribes” on both ends of the political spectrum continue to surface in new forms, the space for tolerance, coexistence, and compromise grows narrower. The tantalizing 0.73 percent margin of victory in the presidential election is a stark reflection of South Korea’s polarized society. It was as if the country were split into two different nations, one seeking to safeguard KDP rule and the other intent on stopping it. The deepening of political polarization does not bode well for South Korea’s democracy.
When it came to power five years ago, the Moon administration declared that “opportunities will be equal, the process will be fair, and the result will be just,” vowing to “create a country that no one has ever experienced before.” They were wrong about the first part, but tragically correct about the latter. South Korea has never experienced anything like this before. Its democracy, which was becoming gradually soaked by a light drizzle, has been drenched in a heavy downpour over the course of this year’s presidential election. A devastating typhoon may lie ahead.
Biden entered office with the Democratic Party in control of the House and the Senate, but Yoon faces strong political headwinds from the outset. The KDP commands an overwhelming majority of 171 among 300 seats in the National Assembly. Yoon will also have to contend with the “street politics” of progressive civil society organizations and labor unions. Biden has decades of political experience, but Yoon’s political ability remains unproven. At the very least, foreign perceptions of Yoon as a political leader do not seem to be especially favorable. He is seen as a hard-headed prosecutor who opposes feminism and holds anti-China attitudes. This is a far cry from the mold of a traditional liberal democratic leader, typified by politicians such as Biden. The image of a strongman may have helped Yoon become the conservative party’s candidate, but it would be unwise to stay on this path as a leader who must govern a democratic society. Yoon must cultivate a different image if he is to play an active role on the international stage, and there must be corresponding policy measures to support this effort.
Yoon does not yet have a firm base of political support, and he is still a largely unknown figure outside of South Korea. He has undergone a whirlwind transformation into a politician after entering politics last summer, but he still seems better suited to play the role of a prosecutor general.
Yoon gained popularity as a man of integrity, a prosecutor unrelenting in his efforts to root out corruption and unyielding to political pressures. It was this reputation that propelled him to the presidency. In a pluralized, democratic society, however, there are bound to be repercussions if the highest elected leader decides to simply cut the Gordian knot every time. For example, consider the issue of relocating the presidential office. Yoon and his transition team could arguably have made greater efforts to garner public support and obtain adequate assistance from the current administration, even if they were displeased with the uncooperative attitude of President Moon’s Blue House. Governing the country in the face of powerful resistance from a super-majority opposition party and a dense network of progressive civil society organizations will require deft political leadership. It will be necessary to carefully consider the full range of public opinion, lead political negotiations, mediate and compromise between different views, and exercise restraint in wielding power. Prosecutors are appointed as public servants, but presidents are elected by the people. They each have different roles and responsibilities.
To avoid repeating the errors of its predecessor, the Yoon administration must go beyond emphasizing a principled approach and abiding by the law. The rule of law is necessary for democracy, but it is not sufficient. While building a firm foundation on the rule of law, there must also be a conscientious effort to reflect on and staunchly defend democratic norms, such as tolerance for the other side and forbearance in the exercise of power. Yoon and his administration must resist the temptation to label the opposition as evil and launch yet another campaign to eradicate deep-rooted evils. They must show patience in persuading the opposition party and the people, aiming to pursue commonalities while acknowledging differences. There are already concerns in some quarters that the Yoon administration will create “a republic of prosecutors,” just as the Moon administration formed “a republic of former pro-democracy activists.” If these fears are realized, South Korea’s democracy will regress even further. Yoon’s administration must learn from the failures of the Moon presidency.
It is also critical for Yoon to shed the perception of being anti-feminist as soon as possible. During the campaign, Yoon’s campaign devised a gender-based electoral strategy aimed at earning the votes of young men, promising to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in one of its high-profile campaign pledges. This strategy backfired. Yoon lost support among female voters, and it only reinforced his image as an anti-feminist. Although Yoon and his advisors may insist that this image was created entirely by the KDP and the left-wing press, foreign observers would disagree. In its first article following the presidential election, Agence France-Presse labeled President-elect Yoon as “anti-feminist political novice.” Many other foreign news agencies took a similar view in their coverage. Feminism and gender identity are highly sensitive issues on the global stage. If his image as an anti-feminist becomes further solidified, this will impose significant constraints on Yoon’s ability to act as a global leader.
Finally, Yoon must abandon his previous appeals to chauvinistic anti-China sentiment. It was not prudent to appeal to anti-China sentiment following the hanbok controversy at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics or to take the hardline stance of vowing to deploy more THAAD anti-missile batteries if elected. Such remarks are reminiscent of Roh Moo-Hyun’s appeals to anti-U.S. sentiment ahead of the 2002 presidential election. As a result, the Roh administration faced difficulties in managing the relationship with the United States early on in its term. The Yoon administration must resist the temptation to exploit anti-China sentiment for political gain in the same way that the Moon administration used the anti-Japan rhetoric of “traitors in our midst.” The relationship between Seoul and Tokyo reached a nadir during the Moon presidency. Yoon must learn from these mistakes. Even though public opinion is important and Beijing may engage in wrongful actions, his administration must maintain a calm, far-sighted approach in support of South Korea’s national interests. Yoon’s emphasis on pragmatism must also extend to foreign policy and national security issues.
In 2020, President-elect Biden was faced with the task of healing a fragmented society and bridging political divides. The same is true of President-elect Yoon in South Korea today, but serious conflicts with the Moon administration during the presidential transition have already dashed hopes for a honeymoon period. Previous South Korean presidents typically entered office with around a 70 percent approval rating, but Yoon is failing to reach 50 percent even before he begins his term.
This brings to mind the challenging situation that Biden is currently mired in. He succeeded in preventing Trump’s re-election, but he has struggled in the face of formidable political obstacles and policy challenges. Biden’s approval ratings hover at 40 percent, which is the lowest of any president two years into the term except Trump. Unless the situation improves, the Democratic Party is likely to suffer a defeat in the November midterm elections. There are growing concerns that Biden’s failures could enable Trump to return to the White House for a second term. Meanwhile, the election of Yoon Suk-Yeol has resulted in a transfer of power, but it does not necessarily represent a victory for South Korea’s conservatives. The failure of the Yoon administration could lead to a progressive resurgence. In many ways, Yoon is faced with a task of historic proportions.
This year’s presidential election in South Korea was closely watched by the foreign press. In addition to U.S. news media, I conducted interviews about the election with prominent centrist and progressive media outlets in Europe, including Der Spiegel in Germany, the New Statesman and The Guardian in the UK, and a Swedish public broadcasting channel, all of which published special reports about South Korea’s election. These outlets, which have a powerful influence on shaping public discourse in the West, were keen on understanding how the victory of a prosecutor general–turned-opposition candidate would affect the future of South Korea’s democracy. As the West grapples with its own crisis of democracy, there is heightened interest in whether South Korea—once an exemplar of democracy in East Asia—will be able to repair its democracy.
South Korea’s democracy was being gradually soaked by a light drizzle, which turned into a heavy downpour over the course of the election and the presidential transition. Foreign media outlets and intellectuals will keep a close eye to see whether Yoon Suk-Yeol will be able to save South Korea’s democracy from the impending thunderstorm and undo the damage that has already been inflicted.
This essay is the first in a series of forthcoming monthly commentaries in Sindonga magazine that will be translated into English, so as to reach a wider audience. It is my sincere hope that these essays will contribute to a constructive discussion and debate among intellectuals, both at home and abroad, about the issues that lie ahead for South Korea’s democracy.
 Under its current constitution, South Korea has a five-year, one-term presidency. The predecessor of the Democratic Party held power for 10 years under Presidents Kim Dae-Jung (1997–2002) and Roh Moo-Hyun (2002–2007). This was followed by 10 years of conservative rule under Presidents Lee Myung-Bak (2007–12) and Park Geun-Hye (2012–17). Moon Jae-In’s victory in 2017 was thus seen as the beginning of a new era in power for Korea’s progressives.
 The use of double standards is often referred to as naeronambul, shorthand for “If I do it, it’s romance, but if you do it, it’s adultery.”
 The Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) has a constitutional mandate to “inspect and examine the settlement of the revenues and expenditures of the State, the accounts of the State and other organizations specified by Act and the job performances of the executive agencies and public officials” (ROK Const., art. 97). The BAI’s inspection panel consists of seven members and makes final decisions regarding the BAI’s investigations.
 An English translation is available at https://fsi.stanford.edu/news/korean-democracy-sinking-under-guise-rule-law.
 For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see South Korea’s Democracy in Crisis: The Threats of Illiberalism, Populism, and Polarization, which I co-edited with Professor Kim Ho-Ki of Yonsei University.
 Both Lee Jae-Myung and Yoon Suk-Yeol lacked prior experience in the National Assembly, which is located in Yeouido. Lee built his political career in local politics as the mayor of Seongnam City and then the governor of Gyeonggi Province, and Yoon had been a lifelong prosecutor before entering politics.
 The next legislative elections are due to be held in April 2024.
 During the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the depiction of a woman in hanbok (Korean traditional dress) as representing one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities angered South Koreans, who believed that China was claiming Korean culture as part of its own on the world stage. This incident was one in a string of cultural conflicts between the two nations amid rising anti-China sentiments in Korea. Yoon, like other then candidates for the presidency, rebuked China for its actions.