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Building and Sharing Korean Electoral Democracy

July 3, 2024

By Kyung-sook Lee, Sun-mee Lee, and Jaemyung Lee 

Celebrating seventy years at The Asia FoundationThe Asia Foundation is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2024. For seven decades, we have partnered with change-makers from government, civil society, the private sector, and academia to solve some of the greatest challenges facing Asia and the Pacific. To mark this milestone, we are sharing a series of highlights showing the scope and impact of our contributions past and present. We are committed to building on these achievements in the decades ahead.

Preparing to count ballots in a presidential election shortly after the end of military rule. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

In the late 1980s, The Asia Foundation played a key role in South Korea’s dramatic transition from authoritarianism to democracy. After decades of struggle against military rule, the Declaration of Democratization in June 1987 marked a pivotal moment in South Korea’s modern history, affirming the right of Koreans to directly elect their national leaders. Local elections followed in 1991.

Having reached this milestone, the nation took up the essential task of building a system to conduct elections. Korea’s election officials were dedicated, honest, and competent, but with past elections having failed to follow a consistent set of rules, there were serious gaps and inconsistencies in the elections playbook that threatened to derail Korea’s hard-won democratic progress.

With extensive experience in sharing the lessons of mature electoral systems, and a history of trusted support for Korean institutions and civil society going back to 1954, The Asia Foundation saw a unique opportunity to help South Korea consolidate its democratic gains. Drawing on our global networks and expertise, the Foundation conducted extensive training in international best practices for officials of the Central Election Management Committee, later known as the National Election Commission.

Counting the votes in a presidential election shortly after the end of military rule. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

To better understand voter behavior, the Foundation supported several programs of electoral research, ranging from voter demographics to party alignments, that attracted notice in the press and political arenas. Our domestic surveys and research programs broadened national understanding of election issues and outcomes, improving election management and enabling candidates to campaign more effectively.

To boost women’s participation, the Foundation supported organizations like the Korean League of Women Voters, introducing them to international forums and their counterpart League of Women Voters in the United States. We also supported the Korean Women’s Political Caucus and the Center for Korean Women and Politics, with training programs, foreign observation and study tours, and strategy workshops on women’s political engagement.

The Asia Foundation was an early and effective advocate of inclusive elections, working with local organizations to promote women’s political participation. Several leaders of these organizations went on to hold national office, including Assemblymember and Minister of Health and Social Affairs Kim Chung-rye, Minister of Political Affairs Lee Ke-soon, Assembly member and Minister of Culture and Tourism Shin Nakyun, and Assembly member Dr. Sohn Bong-scuk. Dr. Sohn would become the first female member of the National Election Commission and served as commissioner of the UN International Electoral Commission for elections in Timor-Leste in 1999.

A street campaign for fair elections by members of the Korean League of Women Voters (1992). (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The generation that followed South Korea’s Declaration of Democratization would experience both a democratic political transformation and world-beating economic growth. Ranked 22nd out of 167 nations in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2023 Democracy Index, South Korea is now sharing the lessons of its success with nations worldwide.

The Korean Civic Education Institute for Democracy has organized observation tours since 2013, in which government officials from around the world visit Korea to learn from their electoral systems. In 2016, South Korea launched the Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB), headquartered in Incheon. A-WEB is now the world’s largest international organization for election management, boasting 109 participating countries and underscoring South Korea’s historic democratic achievements.

Kyung-sook Lee is director of programs, Sun-mee Lee is a senior program officer, and Jaemyung Lee is an associate program officer for The Asia Foundation in Korea. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Korea
Related programs: Development and Aid Effectiveness, Good Governance
Related topics: AsiaFoundation70


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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