The Democracy Index published by the British magazine The Economist ranks South Korea as a “full democracy”, ahead even of countries such as France or Spain. The CIA World Factbook also lists South Korea as a “fully functioning modern democracy”. Yet many experts and activists denounce what they consider to be a rise in authoritarian tendencies within the current Park Geun-hye administration, including: attacks on free speech, crackdowns on dissent and a general stalling of the process towards more liberties as well as better public management and stronger government transparency and accountability.
At the same time, South Korea is party to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international membership organization of more than 60 governments that have pledged to improve their democracy and transparency. Our guest for this episode, Geoffrey Cain, heads the Korea research team of the OGP and kindly agreed to talk to us about the state of Korean democracy, improvements that should be made and Korea’s commitments within the OGP.
In addition to his duties at the Open Government Partnership, Mr. Cain is an award-winning journalist focusing on Asian affairs and the two Koreas in particular. He is senior correspondent for GlobalPost and has written for various outlets including The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Far Eastern Economic Review, TIME and Foreign Policy. His reporting was a finalist for a 2015 Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) award. A former Fulbright scholar, Mr. Cain holds an MA (Distinction) from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a BA from The George Washington University, which he attended on a music scholarship.
[President Park] actually does not behave very democratically and I think this is because of her father. That’s how she was raised […] One good example I remember was her first press conference. It was held ten months after she took office and the questions were easy questions. There was speculation that maybe they were pre-selected but basically she avoids communication in a way that would be expected of a democratic leader. In my experience in Korea, this has been probably the least communicative government that I have dealt with. I often struggle to get just basic information about basic topics from government officials, even though under Korean law, those would be reasonably expected.
The interview was recorded on July 9th in Seoul.