South Korea 2014

Total score

69.06 change: -1.19

Quick facts

  • 49.04 million
Population growth:
  • 0.16 %
Unemployement rate:
  • 3.2 %
  • 1670 billion $
GDP growth rate:
  • 2.8 %
GDP per capita:
  • 33200 $

Score and comments

Political Freedom
Free and Fair Elections

After decades of army rule, South Korea transitioned into an electoral democracy following its first direct presidential elections in 1987. The country’s president is elected every five years and only serves a single term in office. Elections are generally free and fair. In the National Assembly, South Korea’s single legislative chamber, MPs are elected for four-year terms. In the latest parliamentary elections in April 2012, the Saenuri Party won 152 seats while the Democratic United Party (DUP), the second largest political party, secured 127 seats. The Saenuri Party candidate Park Geun-hye won the December 2012 presidential elections, making her South Korea’s first female president. In March 2014, a new opposition party was founded following a merger of the DUP and

members of the New Political Vision Party (NPVP). Until that date, the NPVP was still in their founding stage and thus never formally established. The newly founded New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) is now the biggest opposition party. The June and July 2014 by-elections were seen as a test for Park Geun-hye’s popularity. Following a deadly ferry accident that had claimed the lives of hundreds of school children just two months earlier, most candidates campaigned on public safety issues. Opponents of President Park accused her and the Saenuri party members of mishandling the rescue operations. Despite concerns, the ruling party managed to gather wide support from the voters and emerged as the winner of the by-elections, now controlling 158 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly. Generally the electoral process has constantly improved since 2002, including a decline in influence of money-politics, caused by high costs for contending in the elections. However, bribery and influence peddling are still deeply rooted in political life. In recent years, cases in which candidates tried to rig internal party primaries or bribed contestants to withdraw from the race have again highlighted how common corruption still is in South Korea’s politics. South Korea has a large number of NGOs, social welfare organisations and human rights groups which are able to operate freely and openly. Additionally, the countries’ strong trade unions advocate for workers issues however; in the verge of recent economic downturn their strength has slightly diminished over the last years. The ability to stabilise the economy will be the major challenge for President Park and her Saenuri Party and be the ultimate test for the success of her term in office. 

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Absence of Unconstitutional Veto Players

There are no unconstitutional veto players in the South Korean political system. The military apparatus is under civilian control and other potential influence groups do not carry significant weight in politics. However, as mentioned in the first section, corruption remains a worrying non-constitutional influence in politics, although it cannot be attributed to a single group. The situation is further aggravated by a lack of government transparency. 

Freedom of Press

The media landscape is mostly free in South Korea, with numerous print-, television- and internet outlets. However, between 2008 and 2012, the country experienced severe setbacks in press freedom under President Lee Myung-bak. His administration introduced an even stricter interpretation of the 1948 National Security Law, which prosecutes any expression or publication of information deemed to praise or express sympathy for North Korea, leading to arrests and increased self-censorship. These events sparked concerns among media advocacy groups. The online media can only be considered partly free. Despite South Korea’s leading role in technology development, blocking of websites is not uncommon, upon request of the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), whose members are

mainly government-appointed. Particularly content related to gambling and pornography as well as pro-North Korea content is subject to either blocking or deletion. The relationship with North Korea is specifically sensitive. In 2013, over a hundred people were arrested under the National Security Act for allegedly sympathising with the North Korean regime.  

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Rule of Law
Independence of the Judiciary

The South Korean judiciary is fairly independent. The process of justice appointment is formally transparent and adequately covered by public media. South Korea’s legal system doesn’t know trial by jury. But in 2008 an advisory jury system was introduced. Judges usually respect these advisory juries’ decisions. The Constitutional Court itself has underlined its independence through a number of cases where it ruled against the government.

However, the independence of the courts is sometimes questioned, as state prosecutors are occasionally ordered to launch investigations (particularly into tax matters) aimed at intimidating political rivals or other dissidents.  



Corruption is an issue in South Korea. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked the country 46th out of 177 in 2013, down from 45th in 2012. Bribery and influence peddling remain a persistent problem. In 2013 Won Sei-hoon, a former director of the South Korean intelligence agency, was arrested for bribery. He was charged with accepting cash, gold and other gifts in exchange for helping a construction company getting contracts. Another big corruption case involved the issuing of fake test certificates for inferior parts delivered to nuclear power plants. Criminal charges were filed against 100 high-ranking officials linked to the nuclear power industry, including Park Young-joon, a former vice-minister of the Ministry of Knowledge Economy.


Protection of Human Rights

Human rights are well protected. The freedoms of expression, belief, assembly, association and religion are constitutionally granted and usually respected. The government protects citizens’ rights to privacy. A wire-tap law sets strict rules under which the government may monitor electronic forms of communication and telephone calls. Although South Korea retains the death penalty and death penalties are still handed down for egregious crimes, no one has been executed since 1997. However, the National Security Law, which enables long sentences and even the death penalty for anti-state activities, such as voicing support or traveling to North Korea, continues to cause controversy as it was arbitrarily used to curb freedom of association and expression. Freedom of association was also

curtailed by many cases of arbitrary arrests during peaceful protests over discrimination in the workplace. 

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Economic Freedom
Security of Property Rights

Private property is well protected under South Korean law and expropriation is unlikely. The courts can be slow in deciding on contractual matters, though. The protection of intellectual property rights, on the other hand, is somewhat deficient. Piracy of copyrighted materials is not uncommon.


Size of Government: Expenditures, Taxes, and Enterprises

Government spending has fallen to 30.2% of GDP, whereas public debt stands below 35% of the domestic output. South Korea has a top income tax rate of 35% and a top corporate tax rate of 22%. Other taxes include value added tax and property tax. The introduction of a simplified tax payment mechanism has benefited companies, with several taxes merged and residents now able to pay labour taxes and contributions jointly and online. Overall tax revenue represents about 25.9% of GDP.


Regulation of Credit, Labour, and Business

South Korea’s financial sector is competitive. The restructuring of the banking system during the past decade has resulted in weak institutions being merged or shut down. Foreign banks own majority stakes in some large commercial banks, but there are restrictions imposed on foreign ownership. The government has to some extent retreated from private banks, but still keeps some ownership positions. South Korean laws regulate the starting, running and closure of a business fairly well. StartBiz Online, a system that offers online incorporation, facilitates the process of starting a business. This can be done in about five days and five procedures. A business license can be obtained in 11 procedures and 29 days. Closing a business is a straightforward process. Resolving insolvency has

been made easier by the implementation of a fast track for company rehabilitation. South Korea ranked 7th out of 189 countries assessed in the World Bank’s 2014 Doing Business report (improving by one rank compared to 2013). However, labour regulations are inflexible. The non-salary cost of a worker is moderate, and firing procedures are complicated. Work hour regulations are inflexible. 

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Freedom to Trade Internationally

South Korea has negotiated free trade agreements with the United States, the European Union, ASEAN, Chile, Peru and Singapore during the last couple of years. Similar agreements with Australia, China and Canada are being negotiated. Meanwhile, some obstacles to foreign trade, such as prohibitive tariffs, import and export restrictions, complicated regulations and adjustment tariffs and taxes remain.


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