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South Korea 2016/2017

Large protest rallies took place in response to a corruption scandal involving former President Park Geun-hye. She was removed from office in March. Following the change of government, the Korean National Police Agency accepted recommendations for comprehensive reform that called for a change in the overall approach to policing assemblies so as to better respect freedom of peaceful assembly, although their full implementation remained pending at the end of the year. An increasing number of lower courts handed down decisions recognizing the right to conscientious objection. Discrimination against LGBTI people remained prevalent in public life, especially in the military. Arbitrary detention based on the vaguely worded National Security Law continued. A series of deaths of migrant workers raised concerns about safety in the workplace.


Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and leader of the Democratic Party, was elected President in May, following the decision by the Constitutional Court in March to uphold a parliamentary vote impeaching then President Park. Charges against her included bribery and abuse of power.1

Freedom of assembly

Han Sang-gyun, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, was held criminally responsible for sporadic clashes between protesters and police, and for his role in organizing a series of largely peaceful anti-government protests in 2014 and 2015. In May, the Supreme Court rejected his final appeal against a three-year jail sentence, despite an opinion by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that the charges against Han Sang-gyun violated his rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly, and that his detention was arbitrary. The Working Group called for his immediate release.

In June, Lee Cheol-seong, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA), offered an apology to the family of Baek Nam-gi, an activist farmer who died in 2016 as a result of injuries sustained when police used water cannons during protests against the government’s agricultural policies. The family and civic groups criticized the belated apology that lacked a clear acknowledgement by police of their responsibility.

In September, following calls by civil society organizations, the KNPA accepted recommendations by the newly established Police Reform Committee.2 These included a presumption that assemblies would be peaceful and that spontaneous and other urgent peaceful assemblies would be protected, marking a shift in the previous overall approach to policing. While the decision was an important step forward, the measures fell short in other regards, including not lifting the blanket ban on outdoor assemblies taking place at specific times and places. In addition, the adopted measures still needed to be firmly enshrined in law to bring them into line with international human rights law and standards.

Conscientious objectors

At the same time as the Constitutional Court was examining the legality of conscientious objection, an increasing number of lower courts ruled in favour of men who refused military service for reasons of conscience. They included at least 44 District Court decisions during the year.

In May and December, the Seoul Administrative Court ordered suspension of the practice of publicly disclosing personal information about conscientious objectors, including name, age and address, until it had made its final rulings on two cases brought against the Military Manpower Administration for issuing the lists. The Administrative Court noted the irrevocable damage to conscientious objectors caused by this public disclosure.

Calls to introduce an alternative to military service increased. In May, two additional bills to amend the Military Service Act by introducing an alternative service were submitted to the National Assembly. In June, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea again issued a recommendation to the Ministry of National Defense to introduce an alternative to military service.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

Gay men faced considerable difficulties in fulfilling compulsory military service free from violence, bullying or verbal abuse. In May, a gay soldier was found guilty of violating Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act that prohibits military personnel from engaging in same-sex consensual sexual activity. Dozens of others were charged under the same Article.

The advocacy group Center for Military Human Rights Korea published screen shots of dating app conversations that the group said resulted from military pressure on targeted men to identify other supposedly gay men. The group said that military investigators had confiscated mobile phones belonging to up to 50 soldiers suspected of being gay and insisted that they identify other gay men on their contact lists and gay dating apps.

In September, the National Assembly rejected Kim Yi-su as chief justice of the Constitutional Court despite his nomination by President Moon Jae-in. He had been questioned during the National Assembly’s public hearing about his support for LGBTI rights and there were active campaigns by some religious groups opposing his candidacy.

Workers’ rights − migrant workers

Migrant workers continued to be vulnerable to exploitation under the Employment Permit System, including having to work long hours with little or no rest time, low and irregularly paid wages, and dangerous working conditions.

In May, two Nepalese migrant workers died from suffocation while cleaning a septic tank at a pig farm in North Gyeongsang Province. Two weeks later, two migrant workers from China and Thailand died after losing consciousness while cleaning excrement at a different pig farm in Gyeonggi Province.

In August, a Nepalese migrant worker in North Chungcheong Province committed suicide in a factory dormitory. He left a note stating that his employer had refused to allow him to either change his workplace or return to Nepal to receive treatment for severe insomnia.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Arbitrary detention of individuals based on the vaguely worded National Security Law (NSL) continued. Lee Jin-young, owner of online library “Labour Books”, was brought to court for alleged violations of the NSL after distributing online materials deemed to “benefit” the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). A District Court acquitted him in July, but an appeal by the government to the High Court remained pending.

Freedom of expression

In April, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled as unlawful the decision by the Korea Communications Standards Commission, which censors internet content, to ban a blog entitled “North Korea Tech” covering IT development in North Korea. The Commission had claimed that the site breached the NSL, which had been used in the past to imprison people for “praising” or expressing sympathy for North Korea.

Corporate accountability

Courts handed down decisions acknowledging the responsibility of multinational corporations for the work-related death or illness of former or current employees. These included a Supreme Court judgment in August against Samsung Electronics that a former factory worker should be recognized as suffering from an occupational disease. The Supreme Court returned the case to the High Court, noting that the lack of evidence resulting from the company’s refusal to provide information and an inadequate investigation by the government should not be held against the worker.

  1. South Korea: 8-point human rights agenda for presidential candidates (ASA 25/5785/2017)
  2. Mission failed: Policing assemblies in South Korea (ASA 25/7119/2017)

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