South Korea 2020

Women were subjected to violence and abuse online and by public officials. LGBTI people faced discrimination in media reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, in the military and in education. Logistics companies did not provide adequate protection for delivery workers who faced elevated health risks during the pandemic.


National Assembly elections took place as planned on 15 April, despite an earlier wave of COVID-19 infections, with the Democratic Party winning the majority of seats. Inter-Korean relations deteriorated, as North Korea blamed the South Korean government for failing to stop civil society groups formed by North Koreans who had moved to the South from sending politically themed leaflets into North Korea using balloons or drones.

Violence against women and girls

Pervasive online violence and abuse against women and girls was revealed when the police arrested the main operators of the so-called “Nth Room", which involved the distribution of sexually exploitative videos through chatrooms in the Telegram messaging app. The operators and other perpetrators of similar “digital sex crimes” had blackmailed 1,000 women and girls, mostly after luring them into providing sexually exploitative photos or videos.

The government passed laws directed at the better protection of women and children against sexual exploitation and abuse. In April, the National Assembly passed law revisions which increased punishment for digital sex crimes. The age of consent for sexual activity was raised from 13 to 16 without discrimination. A wider range of behaviours involving the possession or use of illegally produced sexually exploitative content was criminalized. The revisions removed the statute of limitations for crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children.

Multiple elected public officials were involved in cases of alleged abuse of authority and sexual misconduct. In April, Oh Keo-don resigned as Mayor of the city of Busan after admitting to sexually harassing a woman staff member. In July, Park Won-soon, Mayor of the capital, Seoul, was accused of sexually abusing a former secretary, but the police investigation of the case ended due to his subsequent death. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) then launched an independent investigation into the abuse case. In September, two government officials were indicted on charges of sexually assaulting a woman originally from North Korea.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

In May, a COVID-19 cluster outbreak among club visitors in Itaewon, a nightlife district in Seoul, generated media reports that suggested unfounded links between infections and sexual orientation. Some reports included personal information, such as the age, residence, workplace, occupation and commuting patterns of individuals, impacting on their privacy. The discriminatory reports caused stigma against LGBTI people, many of whom subsequently avoided COVID-19 testing for fear of being “outed”. Civil society called on the government to offer anonymous testing, and such tests were expanded to become nationally available. The authorities also revised their practice in publicizing personal information, so that third parties could not use information such as location history to identify individuals.

In June, the Justice Party and five members of the National Assembly from other parties co-sponsored a bill towards a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, which among other things prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.1 The bill was pending under the relevant committee of the National Assembly at year’s end. The NHRCK also made a submission to the National Assembly, urging it to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, as long recommended by the international community.

Transgender people continued to face institutionalized and other discrimination. In January, the military authorities dismissed a transgender soldier after she underwent gender reassignment surgery. She filed an administrative suit with the court in August, after the military authorities had dismissed her appeal. Another transgender woman withdrew from a women-only university after her admission, due to the pressure of students opposing her enrolment.

A case on the constitutionality of Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act, which criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity in the military, remained pending at the Constitutional Court.

Right to health

With physical distancing measures in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for delivery services soared. At least 16 delivery workers died from overwork during the year according to a coalition of civil society organizations, while there were ongoing concerns over the lack of timely health and safety measures for workers in the industry. More than 150 people were infected with COVID-19 in outbreak clusters linked to a major logistics centre near Seoul. According to media reports, the company failed to provide necessary hygiene guidelines, clean uniforms and adequate personal protective equipment to workers.

Inmates and staff of correctional facilities were at greater risk of COVID-19 infection, as the pre-existing problem of overcrowding persisted. In December, at least 772 people, more than one-third of the inmates at the Seoul Eastern Detention Centre, were infected. The authorities also neglected specific health needs of detainees. In May, a man suffering from a psychosocial disorder died in the Busan Detention Centre after being constrained and placed in solitary confinement overnight, while waiting for a COVID-19 test. His family later filed a complaint of ill-treatment with the NHRCK.

Abortion ceased to be criminalized as the year ended, following the order of a Constitutional Court decision in 2019, but regulatory frameworks to ensure safe access to abortion services were not yet developed.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants

The arrival of nearly 500 asylum-seekers on Jeju Island in 2018 had sparked a trend of increasingly strict immigration and refugee policies. The Ministry of Justice subsequently changed the interpretation of procedures provided for in the Refugee Act, thereby excluding transit passengers from applying for asylum at Incheon International Airport. The Incheon District Court ruled in June that this exclusion was unlawful, but the ministry appealed, and asylum-seekers could be held at the airport until a final court decision was reached.

Reports that individuals were held at the airport transit zone for months during the COVID-19 pandemic raised concerns among domestic legal experts. They noted that such extended confinement was often without valid reasons and may have constituted arbitrary detention, as it grossly exceeded the necessary time ̶ up to seven days according to the Refugee Act ̶ for examining the admissibility of asylum applications.

Freedom of assembly

The National Assembly passed an amendment to the Assembly and Demonstration Act in May. The revision did not fully abolish the automatic bans on assemblies contained in Article 11, which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, and continued to provide significant space for arbitrary police decisions. Under many circumstances, outdoor assemblies within sight and sound of key venues, including the National Assembly building, the official residence of the Prime Minister and all levels of courts, remained illegal.

Conscientious objectors

From 30 June, people objecting to compulsory military service could apply for alternative service for the first time. The newly created Commission for Examination of Alternative Service operating under the purview of the Ministry of National Defense received 1,959 applications. At year’s end, the commission reviewed only those applications made on religious grounds and accepted 730 of them. In October, the first batch of alternative service personnel started their 36-month duty, which was much longer than the average military service and was limited only to working in prisons or other detention facilities.

Death penalty

On 16 December, the government voted in favour of the resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA). South Korea had previously abstained from all seven UNGA moratorium resolutions.

  1. South Korea: New anti-discrimination bill offers hope and safety to many (News story, 16 July)