The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Democracy summit and dispute over autocratization

By Korea Herald

Published : March 21, 2024 - 05:31

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The third Summit for Democracy was held in Seoul for three days from March 18. The event was significant because foreign ministers of major countries gathered to discuss Democracy for future generations and the sensitive problems from cutting-edge technologies, including Artificial Intelligence. In particular, Korea, one of the poorest countries and one of the military dictatorships 50 years ago, is proud to have become a prosperous country and hold a democracy summit.

However, according to the Democracy Report 2024 released by V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, on March 7, we cannot avoid being embarrassed that South Korea is facing a dramatically ironic situation. First, it is surprising that the Republic of Korea's democracy ranking is 47th out of 179 countries surveyed. Korea was ranked 13th in the 2019 report, meaning it fell 34 steps in five years. Most worrisome is that Korea was included in the "bell-turn states" flagged up by the report. The institute refers to a country that has made progress in democratization but then deteriorated before a few years has elapsed as a Bell-turn state because it shows a bell-shaped graph. On the other hand, if the situation temporarily worsens and then improves in terms of Democracy, it is described as a U-turn state.

South Korea ranked around 30th before 2018, rose to 13th in the world in the 2019 report, and remained around 17th until 2022. However, in the 2023 report, South Korea plunged to 28th place, and this time, it was introduced as a typical Bell-turn state as it fell 19 places to 47th place. Korea was fortunately still included in the top tier group, liberal democracies. However, it was classified for the first time as one of the states in the group that could be demoted to the second tier of democracy states, the electoral democracies.

This all means that South Korea was included in the list of 42 countries that were transitioning to autocracy.

South Korea has been praised as an attractive country because it entered a miraculous economic growth path around the 1970s, succeeded in political democratization around the 1980s, and succeeded in cultural abundance after the 2000s.

If severe problems arise in its political democratization, which is one of the reasons for receiving applause from people around the world, it hurts national pride. It is a severe setback in managing the Korean national brand and will hurt the Korean economic outlook in the long run. From the world community perspective, it is an aching loss that the best example of the transition from a poor dictatorship to a prosperous and democratic state is broken.

Therefore, the warning that South Korea is about to transition to autocracy should be taken seriously and earnestly. Changing the Bell-turn to a U-turn is a big task for South Korea. We need to know the cause to solve the problem. We need to know why South Korea's democracy index fell and why it was classified as an autocratizing state.

The V-dem report points out the cause of the problem in an indisputable manner. The report criticized President Yoon Seok Yeol for abuse of power before he was inaugurated. It also points to coercive measures against former government officials and attacks on the gender equality campaign. The report also argues that the phenomenon of damaging freedom of expression and freedom of the press is not exclusive to countries that convert to dictatorships, presenting South Korea and Greece as stark examples. This sentence is humiliating for me as one of the Korean people who is proud to have achieved both economic and democratic development at the same time.

If one agrees with the cause of the problem pointed out by the report, they can automatically extract countermeasures. First of all, high-level government officials, including President Yoon Suk Yeol, should refrain from doing anything that could lead to criticism of abuse of power.

They should refrain from saying or doing anything that could be interpreted as political oppression against those in the previous administration. They should refrain from making aggressive remarks and actions on pending issues related to gender equality. The issue of gender equality is associated with the protection system for minorities. Therefore, concrete measures should be taken to prohibit the aggressive attitude of establishment groups toward the socially underprivileged.

They should also refrain from saying or doing anything that infringes on freedom of expression and speech. For example, the presidential bodyguards should never again kick out protestors while covering their mouths carrying them by all four limbs simply because they are yelling at the president's speech. This fatally tarnished the president's image and seriously undermined domestic and international evaluations of him as a national leader. When the president's highest-ranking aide mentions kitchen knife terror attacks on journalists in the past against a journalist from a critical media company, it is a fatal case of infringement of press freedom, regardless of their intention.

Given that President Yoon Suk Yeol frequently emphasizes Liberal Democracy and that the Republic of Korea is also holding a democracy summit, the Yoon government will find it challenging to accept warnings from Sweden. However, the survey must be seriously addressed as the institute explains that they used reliable methodologies and hundreds of variables.

There is naturally still the possibility that the country will change from a bell-turn state to a U-turn state if South Korea listens thoughtfully even now to the observations of a third party and obeys the basic principles of liberal democracy, including freedom of the press. Naturally, there is still a chance that President Yoon will be remembered as a leader who contributed to the development of the Democracy of the Republic of Korea, not as one who was involved in its autocratization. That might be the one big job for the generations to come as we held a summit for democracy.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.