This commentary was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.
A presidential election is well under way in Korea. The ruling Democratic Party chose its candidate Lee Jae-Myung in October 2021, and the People Power Party—the main opposition party—selected its candidate Yoon Seok-Youl the following month. Sim Sang-Jeong of the Justice Party and Ahn Cheol-Soo of the People’s Party are also vying for the presidency. This essay is not to predict who will enter the Blue House in May, but rather to assess the current state and future of Korea’s democracy by reflecting on how the presidential election has unfolded thus far. This is an important and timely issue because Korea, like many other countries in the world, has shown signs of “democratic decay” in recent years, as I argued in a July 2020 article in Journal of Democracy.
Beginning in the late 1980s, Korea 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, in tension with Korea’s democratic and pluralized civil society. These tensions erupted in the Candlelight Protests of 2016 and 2017—a watershed moment in Korea’s political history. Korean civil society, which played a leading role in the nation’s fight for democracy in the 1970s and 80s, rejected and ousted an authoritarian state once again through massive mobilization of the people, sending the impeached Park to prison.
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The Moon Jae-In administration (2017-22), which came to power with the mandate to correct the undemocratic practices of the previous government, missed a golden opportunity to advance Korea’s democracy. Contrary to expectations, the administration has resorted to zero-sum politics in which opponents are demonized, democratic norms are eroded, and political life grows ever more polarized. The Moon administration’s illiberal nature was most clearly exhibited in its campaign to “eradicate deep-rooted evils,” which demonized and punished political opponents according to the Manichean logic of good and evil, endangering Korea’s liberalism and pluralism. The values of mutual toleration and forbearance, which Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt found to be crucial for liberal democracies, are scant in today’s Korean politics.
It is under these circumstances that the current presidential contest began. Korean society is highly polarized, and both the ruling and the main opposition parties have engaged in extensive negative campaigns against each other. Many say that this is the most uninspiring presidential election since democratization in 1987; one that is not about choosing the most appealing candidate, but instead about avoiding the worst. Still, the ongoing presidential race bears significant sociopolitical implications for the future of Korean democracy.
First, for the only time in Korean history after democratization, the two leading contenders have no legislative experience in the National Assembly. Lee has served as the mayor of Seongnam city and the governor of Gyeonggi Province, and his administrative record in local government has earned relatively high marks. Yoon Seok-Youl, a former prosecutor, became widely known for his role in leading the Moon administration’s campaign to “eradicate deep-rooted evils.” However, Yoon rose to political prominence during his term as prosecutor-general, when he withstood political pressures from the ruling bloc to be lenient toward their own people under criminal investigation. Lee and Yoon defeated, respectively, Lee Nak-Yeon, the first prime minister under Moon, and Hong Joon-Pyo, an experienced politician with a wide-ranging political career spanning two decades. This outcome reflects a deep and broad mistrust toward politics among the Korean public, who voiced their dissatisfaction by rejecting the political establishment and seeking new leaders outside the traditional halls of power in Yeouido, Korea’s Beltway. Lee and Yoon show some resemblance to the prevailing mode of political leadership in the 21st century: that of the populist “strongman” that characterizes Donald Trump, Abe Shinzo, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin.
Second, the manner in which the presidential race has unfolded has unmistakably populist characteristics, reflecting the conflict between the “establishment elite” and “ordinary people” that has emerged across the world since the 2008 global financial crisis. This 21st-century populism has two defining features: anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. The former attacks the elite, while the latter rejects coexistence with other political forces. In Korea, progressives (ruling party) regard the generation of conservatives who engineered economic growth as the old elite, while conservatives (main opposition) view the generation of progressive, pro-democracy activists as the new elite. Each accuses the other of representing the establishment, directing their political messaging almost entirely at their own supporters. In such a polarized atmosphere, the qualifications of each candidate as a political leader become a peripheral concern. There has been little discussion or debate during the presidential race over the future of Korea, from the economy to national security.
Third, the emergence of “post-truth” in the 21st-century information society also has a pervasive influence in Korea, as in other countries around the world. This refers to a phenomenon whereby appealing to subjective beliefs, instead of relying on objective facts, decisively sways public opinion. In the post-truth era, beliefs and emotions replace facts and rationality. Overwhelmed with a deluge of information, individuals are heavily inclined to see and listen only to the news that appeals to them. This further reinforces political and social “tribalism” in the public sphere and in civil society. The anti-elitism and anti-pluralism that are intrinsic to contemporary populism are amplified in a post-truth society. Politics then descends into a brutal struggle for power between competing “tribes,” each held together by an unshakable commitment to commonly held beliefs and sentiments. All these factors have appeared in the current Korean election, offering little space for rational discussion.
Whither Korea’s democracy? Unfortunately, what we have observed so far in this election does not provide an optimistic or reassuring view of the road ahead. Korea’s liberal democracy is on the line, as democratic backsliding has now become an undeniable reality. Korean society is deeply divided along the lines of ideology, class, generation, and gender, and even the courts and civil society are highly politicized. The course and aftermath of this election are critical for the future of Korea’s distressed democracy – will democracy be rescued from further decay, or will Korea retreat into a new form of populist authoritarianism? It can only be hoped that a new president will choose democratic values over populist impulses, pursue social integration over “eradicating deep-rooted evils,” and emphasize the truth instead of resorting to post-truth.