Amnesty International Report 2016/17 - The State of the World's Human Rights - South Korea

Restrictions on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression persisted. Asylum-seekers were detained and conscientious objectors were imprisoned for exercising their human rights. The detention in a state facility of 13 restaurant workers originally from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) called into question the legality of the existing settlement support process for North Koreans arriving in the country.

The government failed to prevent private companies from hindering lawful trade union activity, and only belatedly followed up on deaths and adverse health effects resulting from the use of harmful products. The decision of the government to proceed with the deployment of the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system triggered strong opposition from domestic groups, as well as condemnation from China and North Korea.

Lawmakers voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye on 9 December, which must be confirmed through a decision by the Constitutional Court.

Freedom of assembly

Authorities continued to restrict people from exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, often under the pretext of protecting public order. By the end of the year, the authorities had not completed an investigation into the excessive use of force by police against largely peaceful protesters during the anti-government “People’s Rally” in November 2015, nor held accountable any officers or commanding authorities responsible. On 25 September, Baek Nam-gi, a veteran rural activist critically injured after he was hit by a water cannon during the demonstrations, died after spending 10 months in a coma.1

The delay in investigating Baek Nam-gi’s injuries was in sharp contrast to the conviction of Han Sang-gyun, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, and co-organizer of several demonstrations, including union participation in the People’s Rally. Han Sang-gyun was sentenced to five years in prison on 4 July on charges including inciting illegal acts among a small number of protesters during the largely peaceful demonstrations. The sentence was reduced to three years on 13 December on appeal.2

In another instance of what critics of the government saw as an attempt to limit freedom of assembly, the Korean Navy filed a civil lawsuit against 116 individuals and five groups protesting against the construction of a naval base on Jeju island. In March, the Navy sought 3.4 billion KRW (US$2.9 million) as compensation for losses incurred from construction delays allegedly caused by protests that had been ongoing for eight years.

Freedom of expression

The National Assembly passed an anti-terrorism law in March after the opposition staged a nine-day filibuster due to concerns over what they saw as its potential for abuse. The law greatly expanded the power of the state to conduct surveillance of communications and to collect personal information on people suspected of links with terrorism.

The authorities undercut press freedom through increasingly heavy interference with news reporting, especially by television broadcasters. In July, the National Union of Media Workers denounced an array of tactics used by the government to influence news coverage, including nominating individuals close to the government to the boards of influential, publicly owned media corporations and launching disciplinary actions against individual journalists as a warning to others. These tactics were evident during the reporting of the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014 and the discussions on the THAAD system.

The authorities continued to use the vaguely worded National Security Law to intimidate and imprison people exercising their right to freedom of expression. Individuals arrested for alleged violations of the law included members of the Corean Alliance for an Independent Reunification and Democracy (CAIRD), which was forced to disband as a direct result of repeated repressions. Kim Hye-young, a CAIRD activist suffering from thyroid cancer, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in January after being arrested in July 2015 during a peaceful protest.3 Yang Ko-eun, another CAIRD representative, was prohibited from travelling overseas in June to speak about the conditions of her fellow members, and was arrested in September.

Corporate accountability

In May, the UK company Reckitt Benckiser accepted full responsibility for the deaths of at least 95 people, as well as for adverse health effects suffered by hundreds and potentially thousands more. These were linked to a humidifier sterilizer product sold by its Korean subsidiary over a period of many years. Following a country visit the previous year, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances concluded in an August report that this and other companies had failed to conduct a reasonable degree of human rights due diligence with respect to the safety of the chemicals they sold to consumers. He recommended that Reckitt Benckiser ensure that all victims be identified and receive compensation.

Workers’ rights

Businesses, particularly those in the construction sector, continued to hinder union activities among employees and workers employed by subcontractors without being sanctioned by the government. According to a June report by the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, some companies had set up so-called “yellow unions” that were not independent and did not meet standards for collective bargaining. Other companies hired legal consultants to design “union-busting” measures, or private security firms to harass union members.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

The National Immigration Service detained more than 100 asylum-seekers for months at Incheon International Airport, including 28 men from Syria whom the Incheon District Court ruled in June should be released and allowed to apply for asylum. Dozens of asylum-seekers from other countries such as Egypt remained detained at the airport under inhumane conditions and without basic necessities and services, including beds, adequate showers and sanitation facilities, food acceptable for religious beliefs, or the opportunity to exercise outdoors.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Thirteen North Korean restaurant workers who had been working in Ningbo, China, were detained for four months in a facility run by the National Intelligence Service after their arrival from China in April (see Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic of) entry). Relatives said in media interviews facilitated by the North Korean government that the workers had been involuntarily taken to South Korea. The individuals were not allowed to contact their families or lawyers of their choosing, nor to talk to anybody outside the facility about their reasons for travelling to South Korea. This undermined a review of the lawfulness of their detention by an independent and impartial judicial power and raised questions about the government’s enforced settlement support process for arrivals from North Korea.4

Conscientious objectors

Approximately 400 conscientious objectors to military service remained in prison solely for exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which also constituted a case of arbitrary detention under international law. Those who had completed their jail terms for refusing to perform military service in the absence of any alternatives continued to face economic and social disadvantages due to these criminal records. Following legal amendments which came into force in 2015, on 20 December the government published the names and personal information of 237 conscientious objectors on the website of the Military Manpower Administration.

The Constitutional Court was still examining the legality of conscientious objections in cases brought between 2012 and 2015. District courts ruled in favour of four men refusing military duty, adding to the six men receiving acquittals in 2015. Appeals by the prosecution, however, resulted in the overturning of two of the acquittals. In October, an appeals court acquitted two other men who had appealed against the guilty verdicts handed down by the court of first instance.

  1. Urgent action: Protester seriously injured by water cannon (ASA 25/4503/2016)
  2. South Korea: Five year sentence against union leader a chilling blow to peaceful protest (News story, 4 July)
  3. South Korea: Woman denied medical help on hunger strike (ASA 25/4150/2016)
  4. South Korea: End secrecy surrounding North Korean restaurant workers (ASA 25/4413/2016)

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