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Democracies Unite Against Tyranny at Major Conference in Seoul

Ukraine and Taiwan joined the 3rd Summit for Democracy in Seoul which focused on protecting democracies' basic freedoms and elections from foreign manipulation.



US Secretary of State Blinken presents a keynote speech at the 3rd Summit for Democracy in Seoul on March 18. (©Kyodo)

South Korea has worked assiduously to enhance relationships with other democracies, including Japan. At the March 18-20 Summit for Democracy in Seoul, Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul noted that at a time when geopolitical tensions are escalating, the world is witnessing a retreat from democratic values.

"This effort calls for collaboration on an unprecedented scale, drawing together governments, international organizations, civil society, private sector, and especially, our youth, as an - the agent of innovation and change," said Mr Cho.

Young Democracy

A legacy of authoritarianism has created a fractious political system within South Korea. Voters often distrust politicians. Meanwhile, the tyrannical regime of North Korea constantly tries to undermine the South's liberal values. 

Nevertheless, its current leader, President Yoon Suk-yeol, has pledged to bolster parliamentary democracy, both at home and abroad. He emphasized the importance of adhering to the rule of law.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol shakes hands with US Secretary of State Blinken on March 18. (©Yonhap/Kyodo)

He has also warned of the spread of "fake democracy." That was a moot point since the meeting took place just as Russia held elections that returned Vladimir Putin to power.

The Economist magazine branded the process in Russia a "sham." It pointed out that "Had Russia been a democracy, Mr Putin would have left power in 2008, when his second and constitutionally last term in office expired." 

Zelenskyy's Fury

On March 20, the summit in Seoul was addressed by video link by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine

"Since the beginning of this war, Russia has tried to make hell for us. It has destroyed all aspects of security," said Mr Zelenskyy.


The Ukrainian leader continued: "Together we have to make the force that has gone mad come back to the rules - and make the rules work again to shield the world order of fragility. It is vital for Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Indo-Pacific region, and all other regions of the world. Once it works for Ukraine and against the present aggressor, it will work for all and against any other aggressor."

Democratic Backsliding

The United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken also gave a keynote speech in Seoul.

He said: "After the Cold War, there was a powerful wave of political opening around the world. But that has been followed by nearly two decades of democratic backsliding. In many places, basic freedoms have been eroded, electoral rights have come under assault, and corruption has eaten away at hope."

Mr Blinken also quoted President Joe Biden as saying that democracy does not happen by accident. "We have to renew it constantly. And we have to confront our own shortcomings transparently, even when it's uncomfortable, even when it's painful," he said.

Foreign Minister Kamikawa's video message also played at the venue of the 3rd Democracy Summit in Seoul, March 18 (©Kyodo)

Japan's AI Warning 

Japan was represented at the summit by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Yoko Kamikawa, who participated through a video message.

She said: "The basis of democracy is the will of the people, which is expressed through free and independent thought, based on a variety of information."

Kamikawa also thanked her Korean hosts for choosing the themes of digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI) for the meeting. The foreign minister warned that enemies of democracy may create deep fakes using AI. Furthermore, if spread through cyberspace, she noted, they could undermine political legitimacy and credibility.

"There are also risks of AI being used for foreign information manipulation. This enables the generation and dissemination of malicious narratives," said Ms Kamikawa. 

Audrey Tang, Taiwan Minister of Digital Affairs participates in the Summit for Democracy on March 18. (©Yonhap/Kyodo News)

Taiwan Joins the Talks

A similar warning came from Taiwan's Minister of Digital Affairs, Audrey Tang.

She further told the summit that Taiwan has suffered disproportionately from concerted cyberattacks. However, she said, her goal is to ensure that artificial intelligence develops safely and sustainably.


China, which claims Taiwan as its own, although the island rejects its sovereignty claims, said it was firmly opposed to South Korea having invited Taiwan to participate.

"There is only one China in the world," foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian told a regular news conference in Beijing.

"Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory."

He urged Seoul to abide by the one-China principle and stop providing a platform for Taiwan to boost its prestige.

A South Korean Opportunity

The event in Seoul was less high-profile than the inaugural Summit for Democracy which was hosted by Joe Biden in December 2021. 

Nevertheless, it created a valuable opportunity for South Korea to showcase its political and economic capacity. Moreover, it helped to solidify its diplomatic goal of being regarded as a "global pivotal state."

President Yoon Suk-yeol used the event to hold a meeting with Britain's visiting Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden. 

The two leaders agreed the countries should continue to cooperate closely to promote and defend democracy. Mr Dowden said Britain places great importance on strengthening ties with South Korea. It is a nation sharing the values of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.

Ambassador Yoon Yeo-cheol of South Korea attended the Korean War Veterans Reception hosted by King Charles III together with veterans and their families at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, March 19. (Courtesy of Buckingham Palace)

Royal Approval

Meanwhile, in London, King Charles III held an audience at Buckingham Palace with Korean War veterans to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. More than a thousand British soldiers were killed in the conflict. 

The King's sister, Princess Anne, delivered a speech that honored the veterans.

"In a world where freedoms are continually being challenged and our values scrutinized, your selfless courage and steadfast pursuit of peace are guiding principles that have not been forgotten and continue to inspire generations to come," said the Princess Royal. 

Those words resonated with comments made in 2023 by President Yoon. 

Calling the history of South Korea's development a constant journey for freedom, he said, "Seventy years ago, [South] Korea was able to defend freedom, thanks to the help of the international community, and now we are fulfilling our duties and role as a facilitator of freedom in the world."


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays.

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