By Choi Sung-jin
Political freedom has been retrogressing in Korea since President Park Geun-hye took office, Foreign Policy, a U.S. diplomatic journal, said recently.
The Park administration is squelching protests, suing journalists and jailing opposition politicians, said the bimonthly journal in an article headlined "Is South Korea regressing into a dictatorship" in its Internet edition last Thursday.
Citing that Han Sang-gyun, leader of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, was recently sentenced to five years in prison for organizing a massive anti-government protest last November, the journal quoted Amnesty International, which described it as part of the "shrinking right to freedom of peaceful assembly in South Korea."
The article noted that until the early 1990s when the election of opposition leader Kim Young-sam ended more than 40 years of authoritarian rule, the repression of protests was common as well. "But over the last few years, the country has regressed," it said.
"Since taking office on Feb. 25, 2013, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her Saenuri Party have sued journalists, jailed labor leaders, and opposition politicians, censored the press, and dissolved political parties," the article said.
It then cited as such examples the millions of illegal tweets for Park by the agents of National Intelligence Service during the 2012 elections, the disbanding of the Unified Progressive Party in December 2014, and replacing eight history books for secondary school children with a single state-written text.
To deal with North Korea, which threatens to destroy the South by testing nuclear weapons and launching long-range missiles, the journal said, Park has developed ability to find communists everywhere in the country. "It's a common slur in South Korea to accuse anyone mildly progressive of being jongbuk – pro-Pyongyang apparatchik – but it has reached a fever pitch under Park," it said.
The journal noted press freedom has also gone backward since President Park took power.
It pointed to the government's frequent accusations of journalists on charges of defamation. For example, it said, Seoul indicted Tatsuya Kato, the Seoul bureau chief for Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun, claiming his story questioning the president's activities during first seven hours of the April 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, allegedly because of mismanagement from both the ferry company and the government -- amounted to criminal defamation.
"As a result, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the country 70 out of 180 in its World Press Freedom Index, down 10 places from 2015, and the lowest since RSF began tabulating the index since 2002," it said. The article also quoted RSF's comment that "the South Korean government has displayed a growing inability to tolerate criticism and its meddling in the already polarized media threatens their independence."
It conceded that the Park administration has not tortured or hanged anyone or overthrown a democratically elected government in a coup (like her father did). "But while the torture and killing have not returned, the clampdown on freedom has," the journal said.
"It's done in the name of anticommunism, but North Korea isn't the bigger concern of South Koreans today: it's inequality, job opportunities, and realizing a decent standard of living," Foreign Policy said. "Park has failed to address these concerns and, as a result, needs someone to blame. Liberals and communists will do just fine."