Freedom of Expression in South Korea

38 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2014

See all articles by Stephan M. Haggard

Stephan M. Haggard

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IRPS)

Jong-sung You

The Australian National University

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: August 18, 2013


South Korea is widely considered a consolidated democracy, but there is growing evidence that freedom of expression in South Korea has lagged that of comparable Asian countries and that it has deteriorated since 2008. Freedom House downgraded South Korea’s “freedom of the press” status from “Free” to “Partly Free” in 2011 and other international reports also raised concerns on the status of freedom of expression in the country. We identify five problems that have contributed to the deterioration in South Korea’s rankings with respect to civil liberties: abuse of criminal defamation, election campaign restrictions, the National Security Law, restrictions on free expression on the internet, and partisan use of state power to control media and to manipulate public discourse. We consider a number of possible explanations, finding only weak support for arguments about Confucian values and more compelling evidence for the influence of the Japanese legal system and Cold War legacies. But we argue that these factors need to be placed within a political context: why political forces did not align for more fundamental legal reform and strong defense of freedom of expression. We suggest that domestic partisan alignments and the weakness of checks on executive discretion played a key role. Governments on both the right and left have placed limits on freedom of expression in order to contain political opposition, and constitutional, legal and political checks have proven insufficient to stop them. We close with some comments on possible policy actions that would improve freedom of speech in South Korea.

Keywords: Democracy, Civil liberties, Freedom of expression, Freedom of the press, South Korea

Suggested Citation

Haggard, Stephan M. and You, Jong-sung, Freedom of Expression in South Korea (August 18, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Stephan M. Haggard

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IRPS) ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093-0519
United States
858-534-5781 (Phone)
858-534-3939 (Fax)

Jong-sung You (Contact Author)

The Australian National University ( email )

+61 2 6125 7097 (Phone)

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