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Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - South Korea (Republic of Korea)

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1992
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - South Korea (Republic of Korea), 1 January 1992, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca5311.html [accessed 22 August 2014]
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.

Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

In his 1991 New Year's Day message to the nation, South Korean President Roh Tae-woo declared, "Before the century is over, we must complete the task of building a fully democratic nation vibrant with freedom and diversity."105 In March and June, local council elections were held throughout the country for the first time in thirty years. Voter turnout was low, and the majority of the seats were won by candidates belonging to the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP). Aside from those elections, however, gains for freedom and diversity were notably lacking.

On April 26, 1991, Kang Kyung-dae, a student demonstrator, was beaten to death by five riot policemen. Kang's death sparked the most serious political turmoil in South Korea since June 1987, when another student, Park Chong-chol, died in police custody after torture. From late April to June, the country was racked by large-scale protest demonstrations, as well as a series of suicides by students, activists and workers protesting the government's failure to enact democratic reforms. A coalition of students, workers and political activists, formed in the wake of Kang's death, demanded the resignation of all cabinet members and the repeal of a number of security-related laws. Partly in response to those demands, the home affairs minister, who is in charge of the police, resigned. The members of the riot police who were directly responsible for Kang's death were arrested. The prime minister also resigned from his post some weeks later. In late May, the DLP-controlled National Assembly enacted a liberalizing set of amendments to the National Security Law and amnestied a limited number of prisoners held under the law, most of whom had completed nearly ninety percent of their prison terms.

When these conciliatory gestures failed to stop the demonstrations and suicides, the government reverted to repression. The authorities ordered a nationwide manhunt for organizers of the demonstrations. Reverend Moon Ik-hwan, a Presbyterian minister and prominent dissident leader who previously had been imprisoned for traveling to North Korea without government permission, had his parole revoked in June 1991 and was returned to jail for participating in anti-government rallies.

The government tried to dismiss the protest suicides by alleging that they were orchestrated by dissident organizations. One political activist was even tried for allegedly having ghost-written the suicide note and aided and abetted the suicide of a fellow activist. The hard line seemed to work; in June, the political turmoil began to subside.

Among the DLP-sponsored amendments to the National Security Law is a provision that the law "shall not be loosely interpreted or otherwise misapplied to unreasonably restrict the basic human rights of citizens." The law no longer forbids all contact with communist organizations or governments, but still requires that all contact with North Korea be sanctioned by the authorities. It also narrows the definition of a prohibited "anti-state organization" to one with a command-and-control system.

Despite the amendments, about four hundred persons are still being held under the law. Some were jailed in 1991, both before and after the law was amended, solely for their peaceful political activities and views. These detainees include eleven members of the Seoul branch of the National Minjung (People's) Arts Movement, arrested in March for allegedly carrying out activities that benefit North Korea because of their pro-unification artwork; six members of the Seoul Social Science Institute, arrested in June for allegedly benefiting North Korea through publication and dissemination of articles and books advocating a socialist revolution; and twelve persons arrested in 1990 and 1991 for their alleged membership in the dissident organization Pan-National Alliance for the Reunification of Korea (Pomminnyon), including theologian Park Soon-kyung, who was accused of delivering a lecture at a Christian meeting in Japan in which she reportedly said that it is necessary for South Koreans to understand Juche, the North Korean ideology of self-reliance.

Also still in custody despite the amendments are more than forty "non-converted" political prisoners – prisoners who refuse to write "conversion" statements recanting alleged communist or leftist views, regardless of whether they held them in the first place – some of whom have been incarcerated for between thirty and forty years for allegedly engaging in espionage or political agitation on behalf of North Korea. In 1991, five non-converted political prisoners were released due to old age and serious health problems.

Prominent dissidents including Kim Keun-tae, recipient of the 1987 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, and Jang Myung-guk, a well-known labor activist, also remain imprisoned.

Due in part to worker involvement in the tumultuous political events in April and May, there were fewer labor disputes in 1991 than in the previous year. However, labor unions were still limited in their rights to organize and bargain collectively. In February, about seventy members of the newly created Conference of Large Factory Trade Unions (Yondehuei) were rounded up as they were leaving an organizational meeting. Most were soon released but seven key members were formally arrested. At management's request, the police also intervened in labor disputes at Daewoo companies in March and arrested key union leaders on grounds ranging from "interference with normal operation of business" – a charge often used illegitimately to break strikes – to the commission of violent acts. The arrests, in turn, sparked further disputes. In April, some four thousand Daewoo workers walked off their jobs to protest the detention of two additional union leaders who were charged with staging work stoppages and sit-ins over the earlier arrests.106 In September, General Motors announced that it was severing its ties with Daewoo due to dissatisfaction with its management style and constant labor-management disputes.107

Discord over editorial decisionmaking at the Catholic Church-owned Pyunghwa Broadcasting came to a head in 1991, resulting in the detention by the police of thirty-seven journalists and the dismissal of all but ten of them.

The Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union (Chunkyojo) lost a crucial Constitutional Court decision. In 1990, the Supreme Court had ruled that the ban on organizing by public school teachers was unconstitutional. In 1991, the Constitutional Court ruled that the ban on organizing by private school teachers did not violate the constitutional guarantees for workers' freedom of association.

Nearly five thousand Chunkyojo members participated in a signature campaign demanding political reforms by the government. The Ministry of Education threatened them with retaliation.108 In September, two teachers were fired and a third had her salary cut for three months for having participated in the campaign.109

With South Korea's pending entry into the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Labor Ministry discussed amending the labor laws to allow unions to engage in political activities. It also established a special committee to revise labor-related laws, and proposed voiding the current upper limit on the amount of union dues that could be assessed. The amendments have not yet been enacted.

The Right to Monitor

On the surface, domestic human rights monitors seemed to operate fairly freely, but the underlying reality was quite different. Human rights monitors say their office and home telephones are tapped and their activities closely watched by government internal security personnel attached to the Agency for National Security Planning. Monitors also risk arrest if they speak publicly on sensitive human rights issues, although the actual charges against them may be unrelated to human rights work, such as participation in an unauthorized anti-government demonstration.

The case of Suh Joon-shik is illustrative. Released in May 1988 after seventeen years' incarceration for alleged "anti-state" activities, he became one of South Korea's most vocal human rights advocates, chairing the Committee on Long-Term Political Prisoners of the group known as Families of Political Prisoners (Mingahyup), and founding an association of long-term political prisoners. In March 1991, he became chair of the Human Rights Committee of the National Alliance of Democratic Organizations (Chonminnyon). In May, the government announced that Suh was wanted in connection with the suicide of a Chonminnyon staff member following the above-described death of the student Kang. Suh surrendered to the police a month later, but charges on the suicide were never pursued. Instead, in July, he was indicted for having taken part in demonstrations that turned violent; Suh denied having had anything to do with the violence. Later, the violence charges were dropped and Suh was convicted under the Public Surveillance Law and sentenced by the Seoul Criminal District Court to a one-year suspended sentence and two years' probation. Suh was released on December 13.

U.S. Policy

The Bush Administration promoted the cause of human rights in South Korea by taking the important step of suspending insurance coverage for U.S. companies operating in South Korea by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).110 The action was taken pursuant to a labor rights petition filed with OPIC by Asia Watch and the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund. OPIC's decision reflects particularly well upon OPIC President Fred Zeder and OPIC General Counsel Howard Hills, who implemented the law in the face of stiff opposition from the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. OPIC, with the concurrence of the State Department's official representative to its board, Assistant Secretary of State Eugene McCallister of the Economic and Business Affairs Bureau, determined in May to suspend OPIC benefits on labor rights grounds. A thirteen-page rationale for the suspension was prepared which discussed Korea's failings with respect to labor reforms, but the document was quashed and the action postponed for a full two months when the State Department opposition arose. A battle between OPIC and the State Department ensued, ending on July 19 with a decision in support of OPIC's position and suspension of Korea from the OPIC program. A significantly trimmed one-and-one-half page rationale was released that contained little of the detail of the original document. Nonetheless, the decision was a welcome one and brings considerable pressure to bear on the Korean authorities to improve workers rights conditions.

In February, the State Department published its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which appropriately noted a series of serious human rights violations in South Korea. These included a "continuing gap between democratic ideals and actual practice in the continued arrests of dissidents, students and workers under the National Security Law and other security and labor-related laws"; continuing "credible allegations of cruel treatment"; and persistent "[s]urveillance of political opponents by security forces."

Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Schifter took a similar approach in written answers to questions submitted to him on February 26 by the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations. While noting that the South Korean government "is committed to democratic reforms and has made much progress toward that goal," Secretary Schifter touched on such existing human rights problems in South Korea as the high number of political prisoners, including 180 long-term prisoners; the continued imprisonment of "non-converted" prisoners; and the legal ban on union organizing among South Korean school teachers.

In a like vein, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft wrote on September 9 to Representative Edward Feighan: "Human rights is a cornerstone of American foreign policy throughout the world, and we have made human rights a key element of our bilateral relationship with the Republic of Korea. Through discussions both here [in Washington] and in Seoul, U.S. officials have made clear our support for democratization and respect for human rights in Korea."

The principal sour note in the Administration's promotion of human rights in South Korea came during a visit to the White House in July by President Roh. President Bush gave no public indication that he had heeded appeals by fifty-one members of Congress to raise human rights concerns during the visit. Instead, President Bush stated that Roh was "building a thriving democracy" and gave him "much credit ... for the steady leadership that guides your nation."111 Secretary of State James Baker echoed the president: "The United States is confident that the people of Korea are overwhelmingly committed to the success of your democracy and that you are prepared to continue in what President Bush calls the hard work of freedom."112

The Work of Asia Watch

The death of student Kang Kyung-dae prompted Asia Watch to send a letter to President Roh urging that an independent commission be appointed to investigate Kang's death and that relevant details be made public. The letter also urged that a thorough review be undertaken of the training and discipline accorded riot police, and that appropriate steps be taken to ensure that police conduct themselves in accordance with U.N. standards.

Asia Watch also wrote on behalf of Kang Jong-sun, a young woman living in Daegu city who was allegedly raped in December 1988 by two local policemen. Despite considerable media attention to the case and support from women's organizations in South Korea, nearly three years have passed without the prosecutor's office seriously investigating her claim or moving to prosecute the two policemen.

In March, Asia Watch called for the release of members of Pomminnyon who had been jailed solely because of their peaceful activities on behalf of Korean reunification. They remain in custody, even after the National Security Law has been amended, because the law still forbids activities that the South Korean government deems beneficial to North Korea.

Retreat from Reform: Labor Rights and Freedom of Expression in South Korea, the Asia Watch report released in November 1990, continued to circulate widely. The report was a key source cited by OPIC in deciding to suspend new insurance and investment guarantees to U.S. companies operating in South Korea. Asia Watch welcomed OPIC's decision and called on the South Korean government to amend its labor laws to bring them in line with international standards, and to release all unionists and labor activists detained solely for peaceful trade-union and other labor-related activities.

In March, Asia Watch sent a letter to Labor Minister Choe Byung-yul protesting the arrests of seven leading members of Yondehuei on the grounds that their right to freedom of association – specifically, their right to meet with other union representatives – had been violated.

Throughout the year, Asia Watch assisted members of Congress prepare letters of appeal for the release of peaceful political activists in Korea. Asia Watch also worked with the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and several members of Congress in their efforts to encourage President Bush to raise human rights concerns during President Roh's state visit in July.


"Roh Calls for Reunification before 2000," Korea Herald, January 1, 1991.

Yonhap, April 29, 1991, as reported in Federal Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), May 2, 1991.

Yonhap, September 7, 1991, as reported in FBIS, September 9, 1991.

"Ministry to minimize penalty on protesting teachers," Korea Herald, May 18, 1991.

"2 teachers socked for signing statement in May," Korea Herald, September 19, 1991.

Section 231A(1) of the Foreign Assistance Act states: "The Corporation may insure, reinsure, guarantee, or finance a project only if the country in which the project is to be undertaken is taking steps to adopt and implement laws that extend internationally recognized worker rights ... to workers in that country (including any designated zone in that country)." Worker rights are defined as including the right of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, a prohibition on the use of any form of forced or compulsory labor, a minimum age for the employment of children, and acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.

Remarks by President Bush during a welcoming ceremony at the White House, July 2, 1991, as reported in the State Department's Dispatch, July 8, 1991.

Remarks by Secretary Baker at a luncheon for President Roh at the State Department, July 2, 1991, as reported in the State Department's Dispatch, July 8, 1991.

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