Western news agencies, including CNN, seemed perplexed that South Korea did not adopt a hardline response to Kim Jong-nam’s untimely death. North Korea’s democratic counterpart has sought unification throughout its history; the nonpartisan Ministry of Unification opened in 1969, and all South Korean leaders have tried to work towards unification in some capacity. However, South Korea’s Blue House declined to comment directly on Kim’s death or criticise Kim Jong-Un for what many are calling a political assassination. Precaution is necessary for security reasons, with the two countries still technically at war with each other, but there is another reason that this story is getting less condemning coverage. Since late October 2016, South Korea has been facing a crisis within its own democracy.

President Park Geun-Hye has been suspended from her office and is facing impeachment trials for giving political favour and power to a private civilian, Choi Soon-sil. Park is accused of letting Choi meddle extensively in political affairs, while Choi is accused of manipulating Park for her own personal gain. Among the examples of political malpractice, Park’s government coerced chaebols (Korean conglomerates) into donating millions of dollars to Choi’s foundations, and Park admitted that Choi edited some of her public speeches. The streets of Seoul have been filled with protesters, one demonstration on 27 November drew between 270,000 and 1.5 million people, all calling for Park to step down and be held accountable.

Kim’s death and the Malaysian investigations surrounding it are covered in Korean media. However, this is alongside and often secondary to the upcoming trials and fallout from the scandal, which has affected South Korean businesses and educational institutions alike. Samsung’s acting head Lee Jae-Yong
was arrested on 17 February as part of the corruption investigation; he is accused of paying Choi 40 million dollars in bribes for governmental favour. The scandal also caused Ewha Womans University’s President, Choi Kyung-hee, to resign back in October following accusations that Ewha gave Choi Soon-sil’s daughter special treatment. Park’s collusion with Choi is one of the furthest-reaching political scandals in South Korea’s history and seemingly, there is more to be unveiled.

South Korea’s democracy was… perhaps not a democracy at all

While the global community may view South Korea as a democratic haven sandwiched between authoritarian China and totalitarian North Korea, South Korea has a long-standing history of authoritarianism and its present democracy has been riddled with scandals and charges of undemocratic practice. South Korea was not an authentic democracy until 1987. Its leaders manipulated elections, created self-fulfilling constitutions, and used coups to retain power.

Park Chung-Hee was one of these authoritarian leaders. He is remembered in two ways. On one side, he helped transform South Korea from one of the world’s poorest countries into an economic powerhouse; his first five-year plan saw a 7.8% growth rate, and his second 9.6%. However, he was also an autocratic leader who achieved economic success by colluding closely with business. He cracked down on civilian freedoms, installing the Yushin constitution in 1972 that gave him dictatorial powers and led to widespread, sometimes violent, public oppression. His reign only ended when he was assassinated in 1979.

Park Chung-Hee was also Park Geun-Hye’s father. This relationship if anything made her a more popular candidate, since
he is a figure of nostalgia for much of the older Korean generation. However, her administration came under fi re in 2015 for trying to install government-issued history textbooks that critics feared would whitewash the past and portray Park Chung-Hee as an economic saviour, not an autocratic leader who violently cracked down on civilian freedoms and repressed democracy. There were widespread protests against Park Geun-Hye for this policy before the scandal even came to light.

Perhaps it is this undemocratic past and alarming turn back towards it that has made many South Korean college students more concerned with their own country’s affairs. EunSeo*, a student at Ewha Woman’s University, said Kim Jong Nam’s death is not as important to her or her friends as the impeachment trials – “Park Geun-Hye stole and lied. Her father was a dictator but she wanted us to forget that. She abused democracy and was never a real leader because of Choi. This matters more to us right now than what North Korea is doing.”

South Korea has had a long road to democracy, with a history of authoritarianism and dictatorships in recent memory. The current scandal around Park Geun-Hye has shaken South Korea’s government to its core and reverberated in countless elements of society. Kim Jong Un’s policies may seem alarming and immoral, but they are following in line with the policies of his father and grandfather. What is more concerning is how under Park Geun-Hye, South Korea’s democracy was manipulated and embroiled with corruption, and perhaps was not a democracy at all.

*name changed per request of student.

What’s illegal in North Korea?

Drinking alcohol:  A North Korean officer was executed for disrespecting late Kim Jong-il by drinking alcohol during the mourning period.

Watching TV: Last year North Korea reportedly publicly executed 80 people for watching South Korean TV.

Driving: Only state officials are allowed to own a car.

Watching porn: Viewing or selling porn is punishable by death.

Political dissatisfaction: Those who criticise the regime are sent to political prison camps.

International Democratic Rankings: The Top Three

Data found in World Democracy Index 2016

1. Norway is ranked first in the World Democratic Index,  scoring 9.93/10.
2. Iceland is currently ranked second, rising one place from 2015.
3. Sweden is ranked third, scoring fully on a supportive democratic political culture.

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