South Korea - Amnesty International Report 2007

Human Rights in Republic of Korea

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Head of state: Roh Moo-hyun
Head of government: Han Myeong-sook (replaced Han Duck-soo in April, who replaced Lee Hae-chan in March)
Death penalty: retentionist
International Criminal Court: ratified

A draft bill to abolish the death penalty was discussed by the National Assembly for the first time, but no progress was made towards a final vote. More than two years after a law to regulate the employment of migrants was enacted, migrant workers continued to have limited protection against discrimination or abuse, including few possibilities of obtaining redress. In August, at least 189,000 irregular migrant workers faced detention and deportation. At least one prisoner of conscience was still imprisoned under the National Security Law. At least 936 conscientious objectors were in prison for refusing to do military service.

Background

Food aid to North Korea, suspended following a missile test in July, was resumed after floods in August. However, following a nuclear test by North Korea in October, food aid was again halted.

In an unprecedented move, South Korea supported a resolution on human rights in North Korea passed by the UN General Assembly in November. Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was appointed as UN Secretary-General, to take up the post in January 2007.

Death penalty

There were no executions. At least two prisoners were sentenced to death. At least 63 prisoners were under sentence of death at the end of 2006.

A bill to abolish the death penalty was discussed by a National Assembly committee in February and before a public hearing in April. However, it was not put before the National Assembly as the committee did not vote on it.

In February, the Ministry of Justice announced that it was conducting in-depth research into the death penalty in response to public pressure for abolition. However, the findings had not been made public by the end of 2006.

Abuses against migrant workers

In August official figures recorded some 360,000 migrant workers, who included at least 189,000 irregular migrant workers. The 2003 Act Concerning the Employment Permit for Migrant Workers failed to provide adequate safeguards against discrimination and abuse. Many migrant workers continued to be at risk of verbal and physical abuse in the workplace, subjected to racial discrimination and not paid regularly. Most received less pay than Korean workers for the same work, did not receive severance pay, were exposed to poor working conditions, and remained at increased risk of industrial accidents.

A National Human Rights Commission of Korea study reported in January that 20 per cent of detained migrant workers were beaten and nearly 40 per cent verbally abused. More than one-third alleged being stripped naked and searched, and 5.2 per cent alleged being subjected to sexual abuse by immigration officers during body searches following arrest. Some 15 per cent reportedly suffered injuries. Women, who constitute roughly one-third of all migrant workers in Korea, were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, including sexual violence. Some arrests were carried out without appropriate documentation, such as arrest warrants or detention order papers.

Conscientious objectors

At least 936 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, were in prison following convictions in 2005 and 2006 for refusing compulsory military service.

20-year-old Ahn Jae-kwang was detained in January, the first conscientious objector to be detained since the National Human Rights Commission recognized the right of conscientious objection and recommended a system of alternative service in December 2005. The Seoul West District Court issued an arrest warrant on the grounds that pre-trial detention for offences punishable by imprisonment was the norm, even though the criminal procedure law provided for pre-trial imprisonment only where there was a possibility of destruction of evidence or flight by the suspect.

In April the Ministry of National Defence announced the establishment of a policy group to consider alternative civilian service.

National Security Law

The government did not amend or repeal the 1948 National Security Law.

Cheon Wook-yong remained in prison under the National Security Law. Arrested in November 2004 on his return to South Korea, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for allegedly releasing national secrets and assisting an anti-government organization. Cheon Wook-yong had visited North Korea, crossing from China in August 2004. He was captured and interrogated by the North Korean Defence Department. He was then sent back to China where he was detained for 13 days on suspicion of illegal border transgression. He was arrested and detained under vaguely worded articles of the National Security Law that allowed his conviction despite a lack of evidence that he had threatened national security.

Evictions

In February residents of Daechuri village in Pyongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, mostly farmers aged in their 60s and 70s, started resisting evictions aimed at expanding a US army base. They said that money offered was insufficient to buy equivalent land elsewhere or compensate for loss of livelihoods. Thousands of security personnel and hundreds of private contractors destroyed farmers’ houses. Farmers and activists were injured in protests, and some were briefly detained. The security forces imposed severe restrictions on the movement of some 40 families still living in Pyongtaek. A consultation carried out before the eviction reportedly was a sham and did not reflect the farmers’ concerns.

Kim Ji-tae, a farmers’ leader, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in November after being convicted on a charge of obstructing public officials engaged in performing their duties. AI considered him a prisoner of conscience, convicted for protesting peacefully and in order to curtail farmers’ rights to protest and protect their livelihood. He was released pending appeal.

AI country reports/visits

Reports

• South Korea: Key arguments against use of the death penalty (AI Index: ASA 25/005/2006)

• South Korea: “Migrant workers are also human beings” (AI Index: ASA 25/007/2006)

Visits

AI delegates visited South Korea in February, August and December.