Contested politics in South Korea

Democratic evolution, national identity and political partisanship
Research paper ISBN: 978 1 78413 530 0 DOI: 10.55317/9781784135300
Photo of candidates in South Korean presidential debate, February 2022

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Former Korea Foundation Korea Fellow and Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme

Academic and policy analysts are sharply divided over the strength and durability of democracy in South Korea. The political system nominally assures a reliable and representative process. But divisive identity politics, mass protest and the abuse of power have prompted some observers to argue that the country is in the grip of ‘democratic decay’.

This paper seeks to evaluate that claim, identifying five phases in the country’s post-1945 political evolution: ‘illiberal democracy’ (1945–60), ‘democratic authoritarianism’ (1961–72), ‘authoritarian exceptionalism’ (1972–87), ‘democratic paternalism’ (1987–2001) and ‘participatory democracy’ (2002 to date). It also finds that while South Korea today remains susceptible to populist impulses, its democracy in some respects is healthier than might be assumed.

Encouraging signs include the smooth transition to a new presidential administration in 2022, and a recent shift towards more independent, and less tribal, voter attitudes. More work is needed, nonetheless, to strengthen the transparency and accountability of political institutions, and to entrench a culture tolerant of ideological differences.