The Presidential Campaign in the Republic of Korea in 2017

The Role of Social Media

by Julia Trzcińska (Author)
©2022 Monographs 220 Pages


The main purpose of the book is to create a model of the presidential election campaign in South Korea. The research questions included both those regarding the content of the campaign itself and, more broadly, its organization. The collected materials, posted on Facebook and Twitter accounts by the three most important candidates in the campaign, were analyzed using mixed (qualitative and quantitative) research methods. In addition to describing the results of empirical research, the book provides a broader context regarding political communication in the Republic of Korea. Because of that, the work can be useful for students of political science, international relations, communication studies, as well as Korean studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter 1. South Korea as an example of a new democracy
  • 1.1. Korean democracy in the world perspective
  • 1.1.1. Asian values and politics
  • 1.1.2. Political transformation and media reform
  • 1.2. Media and political communication in South Korea
  • 1.2.1. South Korean media system
  • 1.2.2. The Internet and social media
  • 1.2.3. Election campaigns in the age of the Internet
  • 1.3. Research methodology
  • Summary
  • Chapter 2. Model of the presidential election campaign
  • 2.1. Contemporary models of election campaigns
  • 2.2. Organization of the campaign
  • 2.2.1. Personalization of the election campaign and the role of political parties
  • 2.2.2. Election staff and political advertising
  • 2.3. The context of the presidential election in 2017
  • 2.4. The course of the campaign
  • 2.5. Campaign participants
  • 2.6. Use of social media in the campaign
  • Summary
  • Chapter 3. The content of the 2017 campaign
  • 3.1 The style of the campaign
  • 3.2. The most important issues of the campaign
  • 3.3. Differences in messages from candidates
  • 3.4. Unique features of the campaign
  • Summary
  • Chapter 4. Populism in the election campaign
  • 4.1. Populism as a strategy in political communication
  • 4.1.1. Thin populism: People-index
  • 4.1.2 Thick populism: Anti-elitism and exclusion of out-groups
  • 4.2. Populism as an ideology: References in the campaign’s messages
  • 4.3. Populism in South Korea in the context of Asia
  • Summary
  • Chapter 5. International conditionings of the election campaign
  • 5.1. The geopolitical situation and foreign policy of the Republic of Korea
  • 5.2. Foreign policy in the election campaign
  • 5.2.1. Relations with North Korea
  • 5.2.2. Relations with China
  • 5.2.3. Relations with Japan
  • 5.2.4. Alliance with the United States of America
  • Summary
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

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Chapter 1. South Korea as an example of a new democracy

South Korea, which was within the reach of Huntington’s Third Wave, entered the path of democracy in the late 1980s, but from the outset it was not, and still is not, an easy path. The state is struggling with many political problems, including the phenomenon that the media called the curse of one presidential term1 (Lee, 2008; Ferrier, 2018). The Republic of Korea has gone from the insignificant neighbor of Japan and China, through the dynamic economic development that earned it the name of one of the “Asian tigers,” to find itself in the group of full democracies in 2008. However, the country did not enjoy this status for long. In 2016, it fell to the group of flawed democracies, and protests against President Park Geunhye swept through the country, which were caused primarily by a long-lasting political crisis in the country, and ended with the impeachment and trial of the first woman in this position. South Korea was set as an example to other countries as a model of successful democratization, but on the 30th anniversary of the formal transition to democracy, Koreans faced the challenge of maintaining this system at a high level. In 2017 and later, professional studies of the topic prepared by researchers in the field of political science (including Mosler et al., 2018) were published, but the opinions of the Korean citizens themselves were also heard, as they saw a symbol of reforms and the beginning of repairing the quality of democracy in their country in the early elections in May of that year.

South Korea, apart from being a model of democratization in the region, even if it were to be a model of approaches to be avoided, is also a leader in new technologies on a global scale. This makes the analysis of the relationship between new technologies and politics in this country an extremely interesting combination. The first chapter is an introduction to empirical research. Its task is to outline both the democratization process and the current state of democracy in South Korea, as well as technical issues related to the Internet and new media, including social media. Of key importance for a full understanding of the issue are changes in the media system and the quality of journalism in the Republic of ←13 | 14→Korea, but above all, the links between the media sphere and politics. It should be noted, however, that this is only an introduction discussing the aspects necessary to understand the issues related to election campaigns in this country. Some threads, which are not the main subject of the work, have only been mentioned.

1.1. Korean democracy in the world perspective

In contemporary literature on political communication, we can notice a gradual departure from a topic that seems obvious to many researchers today – namely, from the inextricable relationship between democracy and the public sphere and two-way communication. Communicators are more likely to focus on technical solutions or the behavior of individual elements of the so-called “golden triangle” of political communication (Perloff, 1998); that is, separately, political actors, mass media or citizens/recipients. This is due, among other things, to the fact that young generations of researchers often do not remember any other political system and how far it can affect the sphere of media and freedom. It is also not without significance that despite the occurrence of various cases on a global scale, which are far from the ideal in terms of both media freedom and the political system, there are no works describing different civilization or cultural circles and analyzing less obvious cases in the West. However, it should be remembered that only in democratic systems it is possible to have a free public sphere and political debates that result from the freedom of speech, free access to information, and the possibility of articulating one’s views and opinions (Dobek-Ostrowska, 2009). Only under the conditions of freedom of speech and unrestricted media can a democratic system in the contemporary sense be formed.

After Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election in the United States and the success of populist parties in Europe, the democratic West is once again asking questions about the quality and future of liberal democracy. The discussion concerns not only strictly political problems, but also those related to the economy and the question of whether it is actually possible, as Fukuyama announced, to adopt a single model worldwide, which will mean the end of further development and the achievement of the final form of the idea (2017). More than a quarter of a century after the third wave of democratization (Huntington, 2009), the successes and failures in new democracies are increasingly being analyzed in an attempt to determine whether we are dealing with a retreat from democracy, whether it seems satisfactory, or whether it has never really been achieved in these countries.

From 1948, marking the division of the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel, politics in the South were characterized by the influence of autocratic ←14 | 15→leaders. The Korean War and the constant threat from North Korea for many years seemed to justify authoritarian regimes and the pursuit of strong power in the South, while security and economic issues have been the most important goals of South Korean politics from the very beginning (Freedman, 2006).

The Republic of Korea found itself in the group of countries in which the democratization processes were called “transplacement.” This term has been given to countries characterized by cooperation between the opposition and the government in the transition process. The first symbol of democratic changes in the political system itself in the Republic of Korea was the June Declaration signed after mass protests on June 29, 1987, announcing the direct presidential elections. However, the road to democracy in this country began much earlier; some believe that the symbolic beginning of democratization should rather be seen in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising (also known as the “Gwangju Massacre” or “5–18,” after the 18th of May), which was met with an inadequately violent reaction from the state. Officially, 165 people were killed in the riots, but some historians estimate that number as high as two thousand (Plunk, 1985). The uprising became a symbol and had a significant impact on those who were entering adulthood around 1980, but it was the South Korean middle class that played the largest role, joining the protesting students and blue-collar workers (Hwang, 2016). The bloody suppression of protests in Gwangju also meant that Chun Doohwan’s authoritarian government could not use violence seven years later and bowed to the pressure of demonstrators calling for the restoration of direct presidential elections, fair parliamentary elections and greater independence in the region. At the end of 1987, a democratic constitution was passed. On October 12, it was approved by the National Assembly and, on October 28, voted on in a national referendum by 93 percent of voters. It became legally binding on February 25, 1988, and is in force to this day. The passing of the new constitution marked the beginning of a new era in South Korean politics known as the Sixth Republic.

The political system of the state was modeled on the presidential system of the United States, which assumes, above all, a strong position of the head of state and a two-party parliament. It is worth noting, however, that the weak position of the parliament – the unicameral National Assembly – results from the history of the state and citizens are not interested in strengthening it (Sułkowski, 2014). The President of the Republic of Korea has a five-year term, and parliamentary elections are held every four years. The electoral system is a mixed system – the fight for 243 out of 299 seats is fought in single-member constituencies (according to the “winner takes all” principle), while 56 seats are allocated proportionally (Freedman, 2006). Importantly, both the political and electoral ←15 | 16→systems have changed over the years. Freedman lists the features that, according to her, characterize contemporary politics in the Republic of Korea. The author first mentions strong regional ties that make it possible to explain the election results at the central level. She also points out that political parties were traditionally weak institutions and that the political system reflected regional divisions. This was manifested, for example, in favoring the Kyongsang region in the selection of land for investment by authoritarian leaders and resulted in the “retaliatory” mobilization of the Jeolla province, where 90 percent of voters voted for a presidential candidate from this region. Political parties in South Korea are formed around the leader, and frequent changes of names and party affiliations have a negative impact on building voters’ attachment to one party. The weakness of the party as an institution is also related to the fact that the opposition parties were often banned in the 1980s. For this reason, voters often voted for parties for the sake of a leader or because of regional ties, and therefore political parties in the Republic of Korea are often treated only as a tool to gain a position, without ideas for expanding the membership base and building a permanent electorate. The party’s weakness was confirmed by the presidential election in 2012, in which Ahn Cheolsoo, the former president of Seoul National University and president of AhnLab, gained great popularity. A man who was respected, especially among young people, but came entirely from outside politics, he was able to compete with two of the most serious candidates with many years of experience at the highest levels in the state. Ahn Cheolsoo himself chose to withdraw and support the opposition to prevent Park Geunhye from coming to power, but thus exposed the weakness of the South Korean party system.

While there are many studies on the democratization of the Republic of Korea, Mosler et al. (2018) rightly point out that not enough attention has been paid to the quality of this democracy. It is widely believed that according to Huntington’s concept, two peaceful shifts of power (in the case of Korea, the shift from conservative to liberal in 1998, and the shift from liberal back to conservative in 2008) mean effective consolidation, but other factors make the assessment of the quality of democracy in Korea less optimistic. Kim (2012) even suggested the name “contentious democracy”2 to describe the complicated situation in the ←16 | 17→Republic of Korea, which, despite many successes, points towards a presence of negative aspects.

Despite achieving the status of full democracy, the Republic of Korea left the group of the countries under that label in 2015. Although this was the result of losing a small number of points, it marked a certain trend in South Korean politics (and in the politics of the region, as currently no Asian country is in the group of full democracies), which since 2012 has been successively lowered its marks. The shift came in 2017 which again saw a rise in the score and gave South Korea hope to return to the group of full democracies in the years to come. The Freedom House organization also assessed the Republic of Korea as a free state with a score of 84/100, and they saw threats in the failure to respect minority rights, poor integration of society, still present domestic violence against women and legal prohibitions on activities related to North Korea, which can sometimes lead to a reduction in freedom of expression (2018). South Korea is praised for pluralism in the party system, in which various ideological options as well as minorities are represented. A political party was dissolved by the Constitutional Tribunal only once due to the violation of the provisions of the National Security Act by pro-North Korean activities. In terms of potential pressure from business or politics on the freedom of citizens, the very extensive influence of chaebols – large corporations managed by families, typical of the Korean economy has been noted, as well as scandals related to the National Intelligence Service (kor. 국가정보원, rom. gukga jeongbowon). However, the organization also drew attention to the fight against corruption and the reduction of criminal penalties for statements on the Internet, which posed a threat to the freedom of speech in previous years. A less-frequently mentioned issue are the conditions that should be met before the democratization process begins, namely national unity and clear, fixed borders, which in the Korean context is always controversial. Failure to meet this condition has serious consequences, which in the literature are referred to as the “heritage of a divided nation” in regard to the description of the situation in Korea and Taiwan (Chu et al., 1997). First of all, the division of the two countries was a result of the Cold War arrangements, and their security depended on the guarantees of the United States, making both South Korea and Taiwan countries heavily dependent on the situation on the international arena. It also translated into internal politics, regardless of the ruling authority. Each change of government in these countries is also a greater chance for an intervention by a hostile regime, which on the one hand sees such a situation as a weakening of its rival but may also fear destabilization in its territory on the other. The quoted concept also indicates that both countries are perceived as only temporary structures that must fight for recognition on the international arena and in diplomatic relations. ←17 | 18→Nowadays, this statement seems to fit better with Taiwan, which is not recognized by some countries. The unification of Korea is becoming a more distant vision with each passing year and it is rarely referred to as a single-though-divided state. Even the statements of the South Korean citizens themselves illustrate this change. In a survey by the Korean National Reunification Institute in Seoul, 71.2 percent of respondents between the ages of 20 and 30 expressed opposition to the merger with North Korea (Yang, 2018). South Korea’s economic success has changed the situation in the region and, while the Republic of Korea is always viewed in the context of its neighboring Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, no one takes the vision of one country swallowing the other overnight seriously. However, this does not change the fact that the international situation and the location of the Republic of Korea undoubtedly influenced the democratization processes in that country.

The most significant problem of modern South Korean democracy, according to Choi (2018), is the lack of pluralism and hyper-centralization in the state. The researcher introduces the concept of the so-called “second transition,” which would allow this country to achieve a higher level in the quality of democracy and be based on the transition from meticulousness to universality, i.e. on the adoption of pluralism as the basis for the structure and formation of civil society, but also on undertaking actions aimed at increasing the participation of citizens (perceived as “morally autonomous and capable of making rational decisions”) in political life (Choi, 2018).

In a 2003 study, Shin and Park surveyed the citizens of the Republic of Korea themselves, asking them what democracy meant for them. 98 percent of the respondents were able to indicate at least one element that distinguished democracy, 57 percent were able to indicate two, and 19 percent could also add a third element. Almost 60 percent associated democracy with freedom in both positive and negative terms, while 11 percent associated it with institutions or political rights. More than a third associated democracy with social justice and equality. Only 0.5 percent of the Koreans surveyed had negative associations with democracy. In the question in which the respondents were to assign a grade to the ruling and former regimes (1 – full dictatorship, 10 – full democracy), the evaluation of the quality of South Korean democracy in its present shape was not particularly high. Although most Koreans characterized the previous regimes as dictatorships and the present regimes as a democracy, the regime achieved an average score of 6.5 (Shin and Park, 2008). The given notes prove that Korean society views democracy positively and sees it as an opportunity for further development of its country; however, it also sees certain limitations in practice and critically evaluates the level of democracy in the Republic of Korea.

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The state of democracy in the Republic of Korea on the 30th anniversary of the constitution is also assessed by Howe, writing:

Democratic governance in Korea is neither “strong,” in Barber’s terminology,3 nor maximalist. … Democratic governance in Korea is beset with systemic, structural, and cultural barriers to the fullest flourishing of the democratic ideal. Put simply, the ROK is doubtless and quantifiably democratic, but it is lacking in the qualitative governance nuances that reflect an embodiment of the liberal democratic principles of freedom and equality in practice. The ROK is a prime example of a Schumpeterian elite model of democracy. As detailed above, governance by elites is simply not good enough, as elites are predisposed to look after their own interests first, even at the expense of other members of the demos (Howe, 2018: 69).

He also adds that the dominance of the South Korean elite appears to be increasing because it is facilitated by econophoria4– a slavish adherence to neoliberal principles, and policymaking by successive conservative administrations. According to Howe, the elite conquered the heights of industry, management, legislation, administration, prosecution, education and communication, as a result of which the voice of the demos was diminished along with his confidence in management instruments.

The concepts and opinions mentioned clearly indicate that civil society, being the first of the five “arenas” of consolidated democracy as outlined by Linz and Stepan (1996), is active in South Korea, but mainly through direct activity, for example through demonstrations and protests. So far, this engagement has not been exploited as part of democratic procedures or involving political parties throughout the process. As a result, the democracy of the Republic of Korea cannot yet be clearly called consolidated, which seems to be confirmed by the Freedom House and Democracy Index rankings.

1.1.1. Asian values and politics

To understand both the democratization process and the current state of democracy in the Republic of Korea, it is also necessary to refer to the sphere of values that distinguishes the East Asia region from Europe and affects its approach to politics.

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A good example proving how important it is to understand Asian values in the discussion of Asian politics may be the situation in Singapore, where in 1994 a scandal was caused by a Sustagen advertisement in which a boy says to his dad: “Hey, dad, if you can play golf five times a week, I can drink Sustagen once a day.” Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in his speech that such advertising was contrary to the values of Singaporeans, as it exhorted children to disobey their parents. The situation triggered discussions on the advertising market in Singapore and regular meetings of representatives of the Ministry of Information and Arts, advertising specialists and social activists who were to jointly agree on how to promote family values in published commercial spots. Politicians have explicitly said that there will be no commercials on Singaporean television in which the country’s citizens behave like people from the West, and special laws even allowed the ban on advertising from foreign investors (Birch et al., 2001). Although Singapore is extremely strict in enforcing laws to maintain strong power, the above case shows how important the consequences can be to underestimate the influence of Asian values on power structures in the region.

The difference between Asian values and Western values is illustrated by the adoption of the so-called Bangkok Declaration in 1993, which was signed by 40 countries and was to be a counterweight to documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The purpose of the document was to emphasize that not all states have the same values, which are cited as basic human rights (Stępień, 2010). The analysis of human rights in Asia also shows that the problems begin at the stage of definitions and the transfer of concepts; a human as an independent individual is alien to this culture. The most important value is harmony – also in society, which seems impossible to reconcile with a vision of an individual torn out of the community. This harmony is realized through the fulfillment of duties towards others and the proper performance of social roles. The very notion of law is also understood as an obligation, not a form of human protection (Kamińska, 2014). It is reasonable then that the values that underpin Western democracies can also be questioned and reinterpreted. Strnad (2010) draws attention to the fact that although Koreans were ready for change in the 1980s, despite the fact that the fight for democracy was for them (as opposed to 1948) a conscious act, there was no common understanding of what democracy is or what it should be. The author also indicated the reasons for the poor development of civil society, which she sees primarily in the conservative nature of the transition and the authoritarian behavior of the ruling elites that do not correspond to the formal and institutional safeguards of democracy.

The transition to democracy resulting from the cooperation between the government and the opposition, Huntington himself (2009) explains with the ←20 | 21→growing role of Christianity, which, as an alternative to Confucianism and Buddhism, was to show the possibility of recognizing power other than state power, and also promoted the idea of equality, previously alien to Korean Confucians.5 Fukuyama sees the issue of the relationship between faith (or professed philosophical system) and democracy differently. He believes that Confucianism was de facto more democratic than Christianity. The researcher argued for this, among others, by the meritocratic system of state examinations, which was in its own way egalitarian; an emphasis on education which was to allow for a valuable debate in the public sphere about issues not only related to experience and greater tolerance, typical of Eastern beliefs and rarely found in Christianity or Islam (Fukuyama, 1995). Although the inhabitants of Asian countries often combine different faiths, even the ones that would seem impossible to combine, South Korea has undoubtedly begun to open to the world and adopt new patterns, mixing them with their own. Still, it is Confucianism that strongly shapes interpersonal relationships at every level. The researchers point out that despite the fact that politicians often refer to the notion of consensus and understanding, in fact South Korean politics is dominated by elements directly or indirectly related to Confucianism: “autocratic centralism, regional based factionalism, and the peculiarly Korean conceptions of personal loyalty and dissent” (Barr, 2002: 68). It is also indicated that it was Korea that most strongly developed Neo-Confucianism, to a degree that was not observable even in China. Back in the 1990s, research showed that Koreans saw strong leadership as more important than democratic values. Confucianism does not account for (mentioned on the occasion of the concept of “contentious democracy”) the way of expressing opposition to the authorities and the long tradition of protests by students and workers typical of the citizens of this country. This aspect is, conversely, attributed to Korean shamanism, which views the conflict only in absolute terms, and also places emphasis on clan loyalty and ancestor worship.

Clark (2007) makes an interesting analysis of Protestant communities as an expression of South Korean civil society. The author points out that these communities had always remained outside the politics of political parties, but at the same time were actively involved in political life. These groups have brought together and further united people from different backgrounds, ages and social status. Protestant communities form “cells” that recruit members, ←21 | 22→train leaders, meet regularly, follow rituals and share common values, as well as pursue common goals. Korean churches are also active in self-development, education, and dissemination of information. These organizations are democratic in the sense that members only join voluntarily, they can leave and join another church at any time, and because their leaders are dependent on other members for their actions. Catholic and Protestant churches have played an important role in the democratization process of South Korea, creating places of refuge for demonstrators and opposing radical reforms, but Clark emphasizes that the relationship between these organizations mirrors the history of Korea itself. Catholics and Protestants in the Republic of Korea do not see each other as followers of the same faith. The cause for the main difference is that despite the fact that both branches of Christianity developed in Korea (as in other Asian countries) thanks to the activities of missionaries, Christianity developed in a more centralized way for a long time, while the followers of Protestantism operated mainly in smaller, loosely connected or entirely disconnected groups. This allowed for greater autonomy, but it was also probably easier to adapt elements from a foreign culture to Korean traditions. Interestingly, it is Protestantism that is more often identified with Christianity than Catholicism in Korea, although it reached the Korean Peninsula 100 years after Catholicism. Even during the Japanese occupation, Protestantism was perceived as a set of beliefs that could disturb the order and lead to unrest and protests, so its political power was noticed.

Asian values also translate into legal solutions in a more direct way, as can be seen, for example, in the law on defamation, which is very strongly associated with the concept of “face” (Fatting, 2014). This concept is related to the image of a person that is important to Asians in the eyes of other people. Each individual is part of a community, and the good of such community is put above the good of the individual, which is why bringing shame to a given group is taken very seriously and often leads to radical solutions, such as suicide. Bearing in mind how important image-related issues are for Koreans – not because of their personal vanity, but because of the need to contribute to society – it is easier to understand the severe punishments for defamation; often unfounded, and capable of having serious consequences for the slandered person and their environment.

Although no denomination is dominant in the Republic of Korea at present, the influence of individual religions and religious organizations makes the analysis of the values considered by Koreans the most important become even more complex. This does not mean, however, that they should not be taken into account, as history has clearly shown many times the strong links between religions and religious-philosophical systems and politics in this country. The ←22 | 23→link between religious groups, especially Protestants, and civil society, which, as previously mentioned, still seems to be one of the weakest elements of South Korean democracy, seems convincing.

1.1.2. Political transformation and media reform

Since the 1980s, research on political transformations, especially democratic ones, has been a focused of entire subdisciplines of political science, such as transitology or the theory of systems consolidation (Cichosz, 2006). The fact that they are separate branches of science shows how important this topic is and how far-reaching its effects are. It seems that nowadays the transformation of political systems will always be either related in some way to democracy, or equated to a democratic system. Such transformation may be a shift towards democracy called democratization, but it may also be a retreat from this system. Systemic change according to Morawski (1998) is defined as a process in which new rules are created in three areas: politics, economy and society. The process of reaching it, on the other hand, involves the transition and consolidation of the system and always takes place in a specific geographical and time space (Cichosz, 2006).

Transformation in the field of politics and economics undeniably affects the mass media as well, and over time changes their relations with political actors and society. Dobek-Ostrowska (2006) also notes that while the media in mature democracies have received many studies and vast literature, the media in the period of transition and consolidation of democracy still remain not fully researched, described mainly as an ancillary issue and rarely the main subject of analysis. A similar thesis can also be put forward in the context of those democracies whose traditions do not go back several hundred, but up to several dozen years ago. Often, they are put to the test, during which the values they represent are questioned.

Price, Rozumilowicz, and Verhulst (2002) present a theory showing the relationships between the stages of democratization and the stages of media reform. It shows how closely both these spheres are related. The introductory stage of media reform corresponds to the preparatory stage for the transition to democracy; the primary stage to the transition to democracy; the secondary stage to its consolidation; and the late transition stage is associated with mature democracy. The first stage already shows how important the political media are for the elites, regardless of the political system they operate in. The media helps to create a specific image of power among citizens, which is why in totalitarian systems they are one of the political tools for propaganda and often constitute a state organ. The phase of transition to democracy is associated with the collapse ←23 | 24→of authoritarian power, and for the media it means assuming a dual role – legitimizing the changes taking place and documenting them (Bennett, 1998). The associated basic phase of media reform involves a high degree of political uncertainty due to the fact that the new political elite is not prepared to pursue reforms, but often one of the first changes is to free the media from state control. Dobek-Ostrowska (2006) notes that transformations in this sphere take place on two levels: institutional-legal and social. New elites most often decide to open the media market (especially the press market) to new publishers, thus initiating pluralism in this sphere. The media is becoming more and more independent, and the political elite must strive for it over time, because it is the “fourth estate” that society begins to support the fastest. Also in this phase, the educational function of the media is emphasized. It becomes responsible for creating a responsible society that will become a civil society over time. In the secondary stage, we observe the stabilization of media organizations, mainly private owners, the first media groups appear, and the process of internationalization is accelerating. The maturity stage, on the other hand, is related to a stable and mature democracy, both at the institutional and social levels.

Also in the case of South Korea, the discussion of the sphere of media and freedom of expression is essential for a full understanding of the state of democracy in the country. It may be helpful to analyze the results in the global indices of democracy and media freedom (Jaskiernia, 2018). Over the past fifteen years, the media in the Republic of Korea, like its democracy, has gone from being partially free to becoming part of the free media group, and then returning to the “partly free” category of the Freedom House ranking. In 2017, the media in the Republic of Korea had their worst result in fifteen years (34/100), and the apparent deterioration coincides with years of rule by President Park Geunhye, whose administration was known to actively fight all forms of protests and discontent (Chart 1.). Defamation lawsuits have been repeatedly settled in the courts, the most famous of which was the acquittal of a Japanese journalist sued for defamation by President Park herself. Another factor contributing to the weakening of the results was the reference to national security, leading to the deportation in 2016 of journalists of Korean-American origin who allegedly praised North Korea, in violation of the National Security Act of the Republic of Korea. Article 7 of this law provides for a prison sentence for praising or expressing sympathy for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Chart 1.South Korea’s position in the Freedom of the Press ranking in 2002–2017

Note: the best result is 0, and the worst – 100, the countries that achieved the result lower than 30 are considered completely free.

Source: own study based on Freedom House data.

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The Republic of Korea obtained similar results in the rankings of the Reporters Without Borders organization (Chart 2.), with the difference that the result for 2018 gave hope for improvement and the report for this country was even titled “distinct improvement after a bad decade” (RWB, 2018). Already in the first sentence of the explanation, the organization sees this improvement in the election of Moon Jaein – a human rights activist and former political prisoner – as president.

Chart 2.South Korea’s position in the Reporters Without Borders ranking in 2002–2018

Source: own elaboration based on data from Reporters Without Borders; one report was published for 2011 and 2012.

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Despite the “breath of fresh air” as stated in the report, Reporters Without Borders highlighted structural problems that persist. One example is the manager appointment system at public broadcaster stations. The organization also identified high fines for positive communications regarding North Korea and the impact of the National Security Act on freedom of communication as one of the major problems.

1.2. Media and political communication in South Korea

The rankings show a clear decrease in media freedom during the presidency of Park Geunhye and an improvement after the election of Moon Jaein, as well as a constant oscillation on the border of full democracy/fully free media and only partial freedom (Charts 1 and 2).

However, freedom of speech and the press is already guaranteed by the highest law in South Korea. Article 21, point 1 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea of 1987 states: “All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press and enjoy freedom of assembly and association.” Experts note that such a provision is a combination of the Anglo-American and European systems, with particular emphasis on solutions known from Germany and a certain similarity to the First Amendment of the US Constitution (Cho, 2005). In the Anglo-American system, freedom of the press concerns primarily media owners, while in the European system it is guaranteed to recipients and readers; in Korea, the basic law does not provide details in this regard, but in Article 21, point 2 of the Constitution we find the following entry: “licensing or censorship of speech and the press … association shall not be recognized,” while in point 4. “Neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics,” which resembles the German system (Sa, 2009).

Attention is drawn to the problem of restriction of freedom of expression by the Korean government both in the media and in civil society. Fatting (2014) identifies four strategies used by the South Korean government to limit the voices of objection and dissatisfaction: 1) direct involvement in media affairs, 2) using defamation laws to end discussions on certain issues, 3) restricting online content, 4) concerning North Korea and limiting discussions about it, also in the form of research on the issue. The researcher also points out that the recent strategy leads to the demonization of leftist views by conservatives, which also poses a threat to freedom of expression in the public sphere and becomes especially visible during the rule of liberal administrations. There are cases where governments and the media fought a kind of war – conservative newspapers accused the rulers of favoring communists, and the rulers checked their companies’ economy and ←26 | 27→compliance with tax regulations. This was particularly evident during the presidency of Lee Myungbak, who filled his election staff at the highest positions in all state-owned stations, and then the prosecution filed lawsuits against the producers and screenwriter of the PD Notebook program critical of the government. It is estimated that around 200 journalists were punished during this period for publishing materials criticizing the authorities. The year 2012 – the last year in this stormy presidency for the media – brought mass protests from journalists. First, they covered the MBC station where the PD Notebook program was created, and then they extended to other media organizations, being the first opposition of media workers in twenty years.

Researchers also point to problems with the implementation of press freedom in the Western sense. Problems exist in three areas: the legal system, the political system, and practice. In the area of the legal system, the most significant difference seems to be the fact that South Korean legal acts regarding the media are very detailed and often regulate issues such as free market and competition, while in many countries around the world, the media, being a symbol of democracy, is almost not regulated in what they can and should not publish and how they should function as companies at all. At the same time, there are no safeguards against abuse by the media. The second area is a different political system. Koreans eagerly cite examples from the United States and Germany, which are federal states; however, the Republic of Korea is a highly centralized state, which makes it impossible to translate the same solutions from these states – even if they bring results there. It is also noted that many South Korean solutions only seem democratic, but the practice is completely different. This applies, for example, to state-press relations, which seem to be largely similar to the liberal systems in the West, but are in fact lined with South Korean clientelism resulting from close relationships and building a network of dependencies. It is a system similar to the Chinese guanxi, that is, maintaining relations based mostly on mutual small favors, emphasizing personal contacts and relationships. Among other things, this means that it is not surprising that journalists and politicians come together to eat and drink alcohol in less formal settings, where essential information is shared. The functioning of the media is also greatly influenced by elements resulting from the history of Korea, which to this day are important, such as the relationship with a specific region or a school/university, which is already visible inside the editorial office. It also seems that the media themselves do not see themselves as intermediaries between political actors and citizens, but rather as one more element of the political system (Sa, 2009).

One of the more serious problems in South Korea is also Internet freedom (Freedom of the Net, 2017). On the one hand, the report highlights the effective ←27 | 28→organization of protests against President Park Geunhye, which was largely done through social media. On the other hand, it was indicated that it was the applications and social media that were used by military officials to find homosexual soldiers and convict some of them under the law prohibiting military personnel from having sexual relations with representatives of the same sex. An example was also given of the arrest of a 67-year-old man for running an online library that included classics of communism, and threats against women expressing feminist views on the Internet. The very beginning of Park Geunhye’s presidency also began with suspicions that intelligence services manipulated online content to support her candidacy.

Koreans are starting to notice the need to improve and better systematize media education in their country. Initially, the main emphasis was on identifying fake news, which became an exceptionally visible problem during the Park Geunhye trial as well as the election campaign and early elections. However, the need to shape conscious media audiences among young people is also increasingly recognized. Seminars are organized, during which plans are made to use media aid during lessons in schools, which would have a positive impact on teenagers as future voters (The Korea Press Yearbook, 2017). However, it seems that media education programs are still in the planning stage of school curricula, and it will be a long time before they are actually introduced and actively used.

1.2.1. South Korean media system

According to Shaw (1992), contemporary journalism should be associated with the Japanese–Korean Kanagawa Treaty of 1876, which is one of the unequal treaties transforming Korea into a Japanese colony. This treaty forced the not modernized and hitherto closed Korea to open three ports to foreign trade and exclude the Japanese from local jurisdiction (Cyrzan, 2013). While this treaty undoubtedly facilitated the occupation that began in 1910, it also forced Korea to open to the world. It is also the Japanese occupation that is believed to be the reason for the journalistic independence that is still present in South Korea. Resistance to censorship and imposed power has shaped Korean media since the beginning of the 20th century. From 1910, the press was completely under the control of the governor-general until 1919, when certain titles were allowed to operate, albeit under strict supervision in regard to the published content. This change was related to a certain relaxation that concerned the entire sphere of culture. The 1920s were characterized by regular blocking of entire series of issues, which, from the occupiers’ point of view, contained articles on sensitive issues, and a complete ban on the Korean media came into force with the Japanese ←28 | 29→preparations for the war in 1941. After three years (1945–48) in which the United States influenced Korean domestic politics, all successive governments of the already divided Korea tried to maximize their control over the media.

The 1980 Basic Press Law is considered to be the culmination of efforts to subdue the media, which, paradoxically, is often seen as a document that sets the standards of journalism in South Korea. The most significant problem with South Korean media in the 1980s was strict censorship and the imposition of topics. In the form of the so-called “editorial guidelines,” the intelligence services and employees of individual ministries sent ready-made materials to the editorial office, the publication of which was obligatory (Shaw, 1992). Non-compliance meant intimidation, interrogation and beating by the police. Many times in the history of Korea, increased censorship and control of information motivated journalists to resist; this was also the case in the late 1980s, when many of them decided to take up controversial topics and become a “watchdog.”

The greatest change was brought about by the presidency of Roh Taewoo, who already called for a free press and the removal of state officials from the editorial office during his campaign. It was the period of his rule (1988–1993) that saw the greatest expansion of the Korean media, during which the number of radio stations and magazines increased, regional issues began to be reported, and the commercial TV station MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation) freed itself from the influence of the public KBS station (Korean Broadcasting System). The end of the 1980s was also the moment when the Christian Broadcasting System religious radio station began broadcasting again. It was also the period in which the joint efforts of journalists and employees of media organizations to increase press freedom and editorial independence were visible, as well as cultural changes which brought about breaking societal taboos. From the fall of the dictatorship to the mid-1990s, the Korean media grew rapidly, but the state continued to heavily influence this development as a major advertiser and through competition control. The government also maintained a monopoly advertising agency that controlled cash flow in the broadcasting sector.

South Korea’s media system is believed to have responded to changes in the political system, and even sometimes replaced it in some respects during this period:

During these stages, the politically oriented press took over part of the roles of political system while party politics was not being fully established even after the remains of the past authoritarian regime began to wane. Interestingly, though the same period documented a rapid expansion of media market due to the first wave of de-regulation, the interaction between the media system and the economic system was not very extensive as compared to the one between the media system and the political system. The ←29 | 30→phenomenon that the politically oriented press filled the brief vacuum of political power can be interpreted as a consequence of media system’s active response to the changes at the system-level. This phenomenon characterized the nature of the relationship between the press and political parties in the transitional stage of democratization in Korea (Rhee et al., 2011).

Researchers analyzed the Korean media system in relation to the typology proposed by Hallin and Mancini (2004), and on this basis they presented Korea as an example of the fourth model – the model of democratization. Its most important features would be a rapidly changing media market, dynamic political parallelism, low professionalism, and varying levels of state intervention. In this model, the media play the role of an advocate for various issues, but also fuel ideological conflicts and discuss political scandals. Unfortunately, they are not yet a plane supporting the development of democracy. Figure 1 below illustrates the relationships between the causes of the functioning of dynamic political parallelism.

Figure 1.Explanatory Model of Political Parallelism in Korea

Source: Rhee et al., 2011.

Rhee et al. (2011) present various factors influencing contemporary relations between media and political systems in a transparent manner. The factors ←30 | 31→discussed above, such as low professionalism, weak political parties and undeveloped civil society result in a specific arrangement between the media and the government, in which the media often fuel conflicts and sensation, and the government retains indirect control in the form of, for example, competition supervision. Many of these factors, however, depend more on the actions of individual governments and the personal decisions of presidents than on the developed standards or patterns of conduct.

South Korea, like the post-communist countries, did not avoid the phenomenon of tabloidization, which correlates with the development of civil society. Where citizens are not interested in political issues and are not looking for information related to them, the messages are usually simplified and emotionally charged to attract the reader. Recipients are looking for information that is easy to digest and thus it is more difficult for them to create a well-functioning civil society in the conditions of a lack of quality, opinion-forming media. The history of South Korean media has shown numerous times that materials were fabricated solely to increase sales of a given issue (Baek, 2004). The life of an issue in South Korea can be summed up with the metaphor of a kettle that heats up rapidly but cools down just as quickly; particular issues enjoy great interest for a very short period, and then give way to subsequent scandals or more exciting events. Nowadays, journalists quite often adopt the US point of view when discussing issues in the field of international relations, and armed conflicts are often presented as computer games or sports. At the same time, the media seem to have a great influence on public opinion, especially on controversial issues. Baek (2004) sees three reasons for such a large tabloidization of the South Korean media, which are related to the problems already described, such as high competition, dependence on the government and the so-called privileged persons, and the low professionalism of journalists. The final factor in particular seems problematic because South Korean journalists, striving to make their materials unique, often write “guesswork reports” in which only part of the information are proven facts, and the rest are made up by the authors themselves. This practice shows that journalists care about sales over quality materials, which combined with political pressure, significantly limits the development opportunities of Habermas’ public sphere.

The media in South Korea also does not fulfill an educational or control function, which was the subject of the discussion that swept the country in 1999–2007. It concerned the role of the media, as well as the government’s influence on it, for example through the licensing process. It is also worth noting that collecting information is an informally controlled process in this country. This happens through so-called reporting clubs. These clubs stem from the practice ←31 | 32→of assigning journalists to particular departments or institutions – the National Assembly, the Blue House, or individual ministers (Yoon, 2013). The practice resembles those known from Japan, but also the phenomenon of pack journalism. Journalists sharing a club not only provide similar information because they cooperate so closely, but also rely primarily on materials that they receive from official sources. The messages prepared by them are therefore not only similar to one another regardless of the medium for which they work but can also be manipulated by politicians and their employees. Even political leaders undertook the reforms of reporting clubs, seeing how much they limited the discussion in the country by presenting developed, almost identical perspectives, but most often without much success. Research also shows that the South Korean media often focuses too much on current policy information at the central level, leaving no room for other socially relevant events or issues (Yoon, 2013). The low quality of the materials may also be influenced by the earnings of the journalists themselves, which favor the so-called “envelope culture.” In the 1970s, journalists earned well below the minimum wage and accepting additional money was the only way to make a living (Kang, 2005). However, this was not the only reason; gifts are quite common in Asia, often in the form of cash handed in an envelope, aimed at gaining a favorable eye from a given journalist (Romano, 2010). It is worth noting, however, that in Asian culture such gifts do not have to be synonymous with bribes but can nevertheless lead to abuse and lack of transparency.

An annual report on the South Korean press provides information on the employment of journalists and non-reporters in each media, as well as their age, gender and education (The Korea Press Yearbook, 2017). The largest number of people work in online newspapers (in 2016, it was 15,965 employees), then in the media of the public broadcaster, and finally in printed national and local dailies. The majority of journalists, 78.3 percent, were employed full time, but the number is decreasing year by year. The working environment of media organizations is also predominantly male (70.3 percent). More than 56 percent of men work full time in the media sector. Women most often choose the profession of an anchor, which is associated with high prestige and is currently one of the most frequently indicated professions as an ideal job for a bride-to-be (Kim, 2015). Two-thirds of all employees are also employed in Seoul itself. The largest age group are employees over 50 (27.7 percent), but 31.9 percent are 40–44 (15.2 percent) and 45–49 (16.7 percent). Almost 80 percent of people working in the media are people with higher education (79.2 percent); it has not been indicated whether this is strictly media-related education (among journalists themselves this percentage was even higher, as 86.8 percent had an education tertiary, and only 3.2 percent had secondary or tertiary education).

←32 | 33→

In the printed newspaper sector, the greatest number, as much as 56.9 percent of employees, are people working in the newsroom. In the online newspaper sector, it is 57.4 percent. The ratio of journalists to all people employed in a given company is also falling. In 2013 it was 52.8 percent, in 2014–52.3 percent, in 2015–51.6 percent, while in 2016 it was only 50.9 percent.

The ownership of individual titles as well as radio and television stations is also important for the entire media system. The three largest dailies dominate the Korean press market: The Chosun Ilbo (over 1.5 million copies online and 1.2 million printed daily in 2016), JoongAng Ilbo (979,000 and 720,000 respectively) and The Dong-A Ilbo (947,000 and 729,000). The first, established in 1920, is largely owned by the Bang family. The most important shareholders in the company are Bang Sanghoon (30.03 percent), Bang Sunghoon (16.88 percent), Bang Ilyeong Foundation for Culture (15 percent), and Bang Wooyoung (12.08 percent), while the other shareholders have a total of 26.01 percent. JoongAng Ilbo, founded in 1965 by Samsung owner Lee Byungchul, is 64.73 percent owned by JoongAng Holdings (JoongAng Group). Officially, the title is no longer associated with the Samsung group; however, there are speculations about informal relationships and the purchase of shares in the company through family members. The history of Dong-A Ilbo dates back to 1920 and the Japanese occupation. All three titles are criticized for their extreme conservatism and unclear links to the business sphere. There is even the concept of Chojoongdong (kor. 조중동, from the first characters in the titles: Cho-sun, Joong-ang, Dong-a), which is considered very pejorative. There are also voices that the influence of these titles is so great that they should be closed, as it is too late to reform them, which shows the attitude of Koreans themselves to these titles.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (February)
political communication new democracies election campaigns populism East Asia
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 220 pp., 29 fig. b/w, 15 tables.

Biographical notes

Julia Trzcińska (Author)

Julia Trzcińska is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science (University of Wrocław, Poland). She is also a graduate of the Confucius Institute. Her research focuses on social and political communication, public diplomacy and fan studies, mainly in Europe and East Asian countries.


Title: The Presidential Campaign in the Republic of Korea in 2017
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