South Korea
Head of state
Lee Myung-bak
Head of government
Kim Hwang-Sik
Death penalty
abolitionist in practice
48.4 million
Life expectancy
80.6 years
Under 5-mortality
4.9 per 1,000

The government increasingly invoked the National Security Law to restrict freedom of expression, particularly in the context of discussions pertaining to North Korea. The authorities closely monitored the internet and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. There were no executions. Migrant workers remained vulnerable following the Constitutional Court’s ruling against job mobility and a government crackdown against undocumented migrants.


As the National Human Rights Commission of Korea celebrated its 10th anniversary, it faced a boycott from local human rights NGOs after it failed to properly consult civil society on recommendations to the Ministry of Justice which was drafting a new National Action Plan.

In August, the Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional for the government to make no tangible effort to settle disputes with Japan over reparations for Korean survivors of Japan’s military sexual slavery system (see Japan entry).

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Freedom of expression

The authorities increasingly used the National Security Law (NSL) to target individuals and organizations perceived to oppose the government’s policy on North Korea. In March, Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, observed that there was a “shrinking space for freedom of expression” in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). He attributed this to the rising number of prosecutions and harassment of individuals critical of the government. By the end of the year, 135 people had been investigated for violating the NSL.

  • In May, online bookseller Kim Myeong-soo was acquitted of the charge of violating Article 7(5) of the NSL. He had been accused of selling 140 books and possessing 170 others “with the intention of endangering the existence and security of the State.” Prosecutors appealed against his acquittal.

Charges were levelled against those who peacefully expressed their opinions or disseminated information on the internet. By 31 October, the police had deleted 67,300 web posts they believed threatened national security by “praising North Korea and denouncing the U.S. and the government”, a sharp rise from 14,430 posts in 2009.

  • In July, prosecutors charged 244 officials and teachers under provisions of the State Public Officials Act, Political Parties Act and Political Fund Act for joining the Democratic Labor Party and paying membership fees.
  • In September, police authorities investigated Park Jeonggeun for violating Article 7 of the NSL. A member of the Socialist Party and critic of North Korea, he had mockingly re-tweeted lines from a North Korean website and posted the phrase “long live Kim Jong-il”.
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Conscientious objectors

In March, the UN Human Rights Committee considered the cases of 100 South Korean conscientious objectors, and found that South Korea had violated the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, protected under Article 18 of the ICCPR. The Committee’s decision obliged the state to provide an effective remedy, including compensation, to the 100, and to avoid similar violations in the future. In September, however, the Constitutional Court ruled that refusal to undertake military service was not covered by the “right to freedom of conscience” which is protected in the Constitution. At least 810 conscientious objectors remained in prison as of December.

  • In June, lawyer Baek Jong-keon was sentenced to one and a half years in prison. As of November, his appeal was pending before the Seoul Central District Court.
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Freedom of assembly

Protests against the construction of a naval base in Gangjeong village, Jeju island, continued, with many residents and activists facing civil and criminal charges.

  • In August, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office labelled the protests a challenge to state power. Several demonstrators had blocked vehicles from carrying construction material to the naval base. Police arrested 133 people during the protests.
  • In November, trade unionist Kim Jin-sook ended an 11-month protest from the top of a crane in the Hanjin Shipyard, Busan. The protest, against job losses at the shipyard, attracted hundreds of supporters who rallied to her side, travelling on “Buses of Hope”. Song Kyong-dong, a poet, and Jeong Jin-woo, a member of the New Progressive Party, were detained in November and later charged with, among other things, “obstruction of business”, for taking part in the “Buses of Hope” campaign.
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Migrants’ rights

Hundreds of migrant workers were arrested and deported, following a crackdown against undocumented migrant workers which began in September.

  • In February, the Korea Immigration Service (KIS) cancelled Michel Catuira’s work visa and ordered him to leave the country by March. Michel Catuira, who was President of the Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU), appealed against this decision. In September, the Seoul Administration Court upheld his appeal, ruling that efforts to deport him violated South Korean and international human rights law. The KIS subsequently appealed against this decision. Since the MTU was founded in 2005, the government had arrested and deported at least five of its leaders, suggesting that the authorities were attempting to stop it from conducting its legitimate union activities.
  • In September, the Constitutional Court ruled that restricting migrant workers to three changes of workplace within a work permit issued under the Employment Permit System did not violate their freedom of occupation. The judgement weakened the 2007 Constitutional Court ruling which recognized that migrant workers had the same rights to work as South Korean nationals, under Article 32 of the Constitution.
  • In November, a Chinese migrant worker died in an immigration vehicle just after his arrest by immigration authorities. Despite frantic calls from fellow detainees, officials reacted slowly and medical help arrived too late.
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Death penalty

Draft legislation aimed at abolishing the death penalty was pending consideration by the National Assembly. In September, South Korea observed 5,000 days free of executions. As of December, 60 people remained on death row.

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