Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 September 2014, 12:56 GMT

Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Republic of Korea

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Republic of Korea, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8a74.html [accessed 18 September 2014]
Comments This report covers events of 1996
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human Rights Developments

Three significant concerns in 1996 were symbolic of the ways in which the Republic of Korea undermined international human rights standards even as it played a largely positive role in defending those standards in international fora. Those concerns were the trials of two former presidents, the massive arrests and indictments of students participating in a banned unification rally, and the government's failure to change repressive labor laws.

The trials of former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo on mutiny, treason and corruption charges provided the most spectacular example in Asia of the tension between the need for accountability for past human rights abuses and the importance of upholding international norms. Chun was sentenced to death in August in connection with his 1979 coup d'etat and the 1980 Kwangju massacre in which hundreds of people were killed; Roh was sentenced to twenty-two-and-a-half-years on similar charges.

While the verdicts were an extraordinary demonstration of how far Korea has come in its transition from the dictatorship of Chun to the democratizing government of Kim Young-sam, they also raised troubling questions about the use of the death penalty, the independence of the judiciary, and fair trial procedures. The court refused to accept the majority of defense witnesses. Some observers also charged that prosecutors appeared to be carrying out politically motivated orders from President Kim. Until October 1995 he had avoided advocating trials, maintaining that the cases of the ex-presidents should be evaluated by history. When he publicly announced he had changed his position, the prosecutors, who had already closed their investigations and declined to indict, immediately reopened the cases and proceeded quickly to indictments. An argument about the applicability of the statute of limitations which had been going on for several years was immediately resolved by passage of a new law in favor of the prosecution. Appeals of the two presidents were pending at the end of the year.

In late July as it has done every year, the Korean government banned the Pan-National Rally for Reunification, a student event organized under the auspices of Hanchongryon, the Korean Federation of University Student Councils, which campaigns for a confederation model of reunification with North Korea and the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces. For nine days in August, some 26,000 police and other security forces mounted a violent offensive against the 7,000 students gathered at Yonsei University, many of whom used violence in return. Police detained 5,848 students and indicted 438 of them on September 17, thirty-eight under the National Security Law and the rest under the Act on Assembly and Demonstrations and the Law Against Violence. Another twenty-seven were kept in detention, and the rest were released.

Of those indicted, fifty-one had been sentenced by late October to prison terms ranging from eight months to three years. Korean human rights organizations reported that the police used beatings to demand false confessions from students in custody stating explicitly that they had instigated and engaged in violence.

While violence on the part of the students and excessive use of force on the part of security forces are to be condemned, President Kim Young-sam also bears responsibility for outlawing what could have been a peaceful demonstration, labeling it a "violent revolutionary pro-North Korean guerrilla operation" and insisting that student protests were no longer necessary now that he was president. Korean authorities, in an attempt to justify the violence, labeled Hanchongry as an anti-state organization and announced their intention to ban it, although a ban requires court action. As of November, that action was still pending.

On August 28, police carried out search and seizure procedures at student government offices at twenty-three universities. Immediately after the police search, Korea University officials closed the campus office of Hanchongry. On August 30, Seoul police closed Hanchongryon's internal communications network on the grounds that it had been used in support of North Korea. At the same time, the government made a decision to investigate the organization's home page on the World Wide Web. On September 2, Yonsei University authorities seized the facilities of the student newspaper, claiming it was prejudiced in favor of North Korea. A few days later, the government announced that all student newspapers would be investigated. Editors and writers at newspapers which praised North Korea would be prosecuted under the National Security Law (NSL). In addition, the Agency for National Security Planning and the police intensified their efforts to track down persons posting Internet messages "beneficial to North Korea."

The National Security Law itself remained a major human rights problem. In its response to Korea's 1992 report on fulfillment of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the U.N. Human Rights Committee called the NSL "a major obstacle to the full realization" of the rights enshrined in the ICCPR. Article 7, section 1 of the law permits prison terms of up to seven years for anyone who "with the knowledge that he might endanger the existence or security of the State or the basic order of free democracy, praised, or encouraged, or propagandized for, or sided with the activities of an antistate organization." Other sections criminalize forming or joining such an organization and importing or disseminating materials in support of such organizations. Its repeal continues to be a major objective for Korean human rights and labor organizations.

In addition to those indicted under NSL provisions for participation in the student demonstrations, 264 people were arrested between January 1 and September 5 for NSL offenses. Almost fifty arrests were in connection with reopened investigations into organizations shut down in 1991-92.

On July 10, Yi Eun-soon, vice-president of the Women's Student Association at Kyoungsan University was arrested for producing T-shirts which included the name of a North Korean university. Police arrested Kim Jae-woo, chair of the Honam University Reunification Committee, on July 15 for allegedly showing a video to farmers about visits to North Korea. Although plans to show the video had been made, the event was canceled. Jang Dae-up was indicted in late June or early July for inserting a phrase from the Communist Manifesto into the student planner produced by the Sogang University Association. On August 28, Kwon Taek-hun chair of the Yongnam Student Council received a two-year sentence for distributing literature at a student meeting and leading a student demonstration in April. On February 3, Lee Eun-jin, a singer and Won Yong-ho, a publisher, were arrested for praising North Korea by disseminating a pro-North Korean songbook entitled Song of Hope. Dozens of other such arrests, in violation of the right to freedom of expression, took place during the year.

Labor rights also continued to be a major issue. Efforts to secure labor rights improvements as a condition for Korea's membership into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the exclusive twenty-seven-member club of developed nations, failed when Korea was invited to become a member in October, but in a precedent-setting development, a committee was created to systematically monitor Korea's labor practices.

Four major laws denying free expression and association and the right to collectively bargain through representative unions remained on the books in Korea: a ban on "multiple" unions which legitimizes company- and government-sponsored and "ghost" unions formed during the period of military rule; prohibition of third-party intervention in labor disputes by federations not recognized by the government; restrictions on the right to organize by teachers, many of whom work in the private sector; and mandated compulsory arbitration for "public interest workers," including those working in transport, utilities, public health, banking, broadcasting, communications and the post office.

In response to a complaint filed by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) in January 1996, the Committee on Freedom of Association of the International Labour Organization (ILO) recommended that the government drop charges against the first president of KCTU, Kwon Young-kil, who had been arrested in late 1995 for giving a solidarity speech to the Seoul Subway Workers Union a year and a half earlier. The committee also called for repeal of the bans on third-party intervention (organizing activities by non-union personnel), union fund-raising appeals, unimpeded union formation and the free election of union representatives.

The Right to Monitor

The government has placed no direct restrictions on the monitoring and dissemination of information about human rights violations but both the National Security Law and the ban on third-party intervention in labor disputes have been used to restrict human rights activities.

On October 2, the forty-eight-year-old monk Chin-kwan, co-chair of the Buddhist Committee for Human Rights, was detained on suspicion of violating the NSL for using telephone and fax to exchange information on dissident organizations' activities with Pak Tae-ho, chair of the Cho-sun Buddhist Alliance in North Korea. He also allegedly met three North Koreans at a hotel in Beijing in September 1995 and received from them $4,000 in travel expenses; and he allegedly traveled to Canada where he handed over materials about dissident organizations to a pro-North Korean overseas representative of the Pan-National Alliance for the Unification of the Fatherland. Chin-kwan is a prominent labor rights activist in KOHRNET, an alliance of Korean human rights organizations.

The Role of the International Community

The twenty-seven members of the OECD decided in October to admit Korea but required that Korea's labor rights practices be monitored on a regular basis. The decision had been delayed in part because of concerns over labor legislation and violations of worker rights.

Members of the European Union were particularly active in holding Korea to international standards. When a delegation of parliamentarians from Korea visited Brussels in October, Sir Leon Brittan, European Commission vice-president for external relations, said the E.U. favored Korea's membership in OECD but also noted that reforms in the labor laws would remain on the OECD's agenda even after Korea was admitted.

Given its "special relationship" with South Korea and its preoccupation with trade, security and North/South tensions, the U.S. was notably reluctant to press Korea publicly on human rights concerns, though the issue was raised privately by State Department officials. While supporting Korea's OECD membership, the U.S. also urged Korea to reform its labor laws, including during Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor's visit to Seoul in June.

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