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Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Republic of Korea

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Publication Date 18 June 2009
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Republic of Korea, 18 June 2009, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
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.

Political context

2008 was marked by a setback on the progress made by the Republic of Korea (South Korea) over the past two decades in promoting and protecting human rights. In particular, freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly were seriously undermined during the protests held against the renewal of US beef imports over fears of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease, on which occasion the police used excessive force against peaceful protesters. Many of them were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.1 These demonstrations, which were organised by the People's Conference Against Mad Cow Disease, a coalition of 1,700 organisations from throughout the country, began on May 2, 2008 and continued almost daily for more than two months, until July 10, 2008. The protesters voiced their discontent not only with the Government's trade policies, but with a broad range of President Lee Myung-bak's other policies, including the project for the construction of a Grand Canal, the privatisation of the health care system and the revision of the media law.2

In this context, media's freedom of opinion and expression was further restricted through the use of defamation laws. For instance, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries took a number of actions against four producers of MBC TV's "PD Notebook" documentary programme over a report it broadcast on April 29, 2008 about US beef and mad cow disease. These actions included criminal and civil defamation cases and a complaint before the Press Arbitration Commission. In addition, the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) ordered MBC TV to make a public apology for this programme. The proposal of the Ministry of Justice to extend the coverage of criminal defamation laws to the Internet was further cause for concern.3

Furthermore, December 1, 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of South Korea's National Security Law (NSL), which was still used as a tool to silence dissent voices and to prosecute individuals who are peacefully exercising their rights to freedoms of expression and association. For instance, in 2008, the Prosecutor's Office issued twice a warrant for the arrest of Professor Oh Se-chul – in August and in November – for his "enemy-benefiting" activities and involvement in the Socialist Labour Solidarity movement. However, on both occasions, the Seoul Central District Court dismissed the charges citing "not enough proof that he tried to overthrow the country and the democratic system". Furthermore, NSL prohibits "anti-State" and "espionage" activities, but does not clearly define them. NSL has also been used as a form of censorship, to punish people for publishing and distributing material deemed to "benefit" North Korea. In 2008, seven people were detained for violating NSL, all of whom were charged with engaging in pro-North Korean activities, merely for having discussed reunification with North Korea, publishing socialist or "pro-North Korean" material or having views considered to be similar to those of the North Korean Government.4

Finally, in South Korea some of the most basic workers' rights, such as the rights to organise, to elect their own representatives or to strike, continued to be violated. In particular, while migrant workers remained particularly vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation, the Government pursued in 2008 its crackdown on irregular migrant workers, which led to their arrest, detention and deportation.

Obstacles to freedom of peaceful assembly and police violence against human rights defenders monitoring the demonstrations against the Government's trade policies5

In 2008, human rights defenders who monitored the demonstrations against the agreement between the United States and South Korea to lift US beef import restrictions were not immune from police violence. For instance, at about 1:30 a.m. on June 26, 2008, Mr. Lee Joon-hyung, a lawyer working with MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, an NGO that provided legal assistance to arrested demonstrators, was hit in the forehead with a shield by a riot policeman, letting him unconscious. Yet, he was wearing a vest that clearly identified him as a member of "A group of lawyers monitoring human rights violations". In another incident, two staff members of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) who were monitoring a protest on June 28, 2008 were injured by the police after being beaten with batons and hit by metal objects thrown by the police, even though they were clearly identified as NHRCK members.6

The police also obtained warrants to search on June 30, 2008 the offices of the People's Conference Against Mad Cow Disease and Korea Solidarity of Progressive Movements (KSPM), two organisations perceived by the Government to be leading and organising the protests. During the search, the police seized and confiscated office computers and paraphernalia materials related to the protests, including placards and banners. More importantly, the police took away two police fire extinguishers that had been thrown at demonstrators and police water bottles. These objects indicated the police station from which the police had been deployed and had been collected at the rallies as evidence for legal action.

Furthermore, following a general strike on July 2, 2008 against the Government's decision to resume the beef imports as well as to express solidarity with workers from the E-Land retail company employed under precarious and exploitative employment arrangements in violation of safeguards introduced into law in July 2007, the Prosecutor and the Ministry of Labour declared that the strike was illegal on the grounds that it did not specifically focus on issues related to wages and working conditions. On July 24, 2008, arrest warrants were issued on the basis of the provisions in Section 314 of the Criminal Code for "obstruction of business" against several trade union leaders involved in the strike. Following the issue of the arrest warrants, Mr. Lee Yongshik, General Secretary of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and Ms. Jin Young-ok, KCTU First Vice-President, were arrested in July 2008 and subsequently released on bail. On December 5, 2008, Mr. Lee Suk-haeng, KCTU President, was arrested pursuant to the warrants issued in July 2008, together with four other officials of the KCTU and its metals-sector affiliate the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU), namely Ms. Jin Young-ok, Mr. Lee Yong-shik, Mr. Jung Gab-deuk, KMWU President, and Mr. Nam Taek-gyu, KMWU First Vice-President.7 Six of the top elected officers of the Hyundai Motor Branch, namely Messrs. Yoon Hae-mo, Kim Tae-gon, Kim Jong-il, Jung Chang-bong, Joo In-koo and Jo Chang-min, were also indicted on the basis of the same arrest warrants but not detained. Only Mr. Lee Suk-haeng remained detained as of the end of 2008. Subsequently, the KCTU headquarters were surrounded by the police, people entering the premises were subjected to searches, and homes and family members of KCTU leaders were subjected to police surveillance.

Ongoing repression against the Migrant Trade Union and its members

In 2005, the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union (MTU), an affiliated of KCTU, was formed as a union for and by migrant workers regardless of visa status. MTU especially seeks to improve working conditions and stop the crackdown against undocumented migrant workers. Since then, the Ministry of Labour and the Government have been refusing to grant MTU a legal union status based on the assertion that undocumented migrant workers do not have the right to freedom of association under Korean law. Yet, in February 2007, the Seoul High Court ruled in favour of MTU's legal union status, stating clearly that undocumented migrant workers are recognised as workers under the South Korean Constitution and the Trade Union Law, and therefore the subjects of legally protected basic labour rights, including the right to freedom of association.8

However, this did not prevent the repression of MTU leaders, who have been regularly subjected to arrest and deportation since the union was formed. Thus, on May 2, 2008, Messrs. Torna Limbu and Abdus Sabur, respectively President and Vice-President of MTU, were arrested and, on May 15, 2008, they were taken from the Cheongju Foreigners' Detention Centre and forced to board a plane at Incheon airport a few hours later, in application of a decision of the Ministry of Justice and Immigration Authorities. The decision took place at the same time as actions protesting the arbitrary arrest of the two MTU leaders were taking place in Seoul, Cheongju, Daegu and Busan. Furthermore, on May 15, 2008, the NHRCK had accepted an MTU appeal to postpone the deportation until the investigation into the human rights violations associated with the arrests of Messrs. Torna Limbu and Abdus Sabur proceeded. The Ministry of Justice was informed orally of this decision, and it is understood that they then rushed to carry out the deportation before they received the formal notice.

The repression against MTU members increased at the end of the year, as the Supreme Court was about to rule on MTU's legal union status. However, as of the end of 2008, MTU had received no further information and did not know when the ruling was going to be made.

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 20089

Names of human rights defendersViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Messrs. Torna Limbu and Abdus SaburArbitrary arrests / Deportation / Obstacles to the freedom of associationUrgent Appeal KOR 001/0508/OBS 086May 20, 2008
Messrs. Lee Suk-haeng, Lee Yong-shik, Jung Gab-deuk, Nam Taek-gyu, Yoon Hae-mo, Kim Tae-gon, Kim Jong-il, Jung Chang-bong, Joo In-koo, Jo Chang-min and Ms. Jin Young-okArbitrary arrest / Judicial harassment / Obstacles to the freedom of association Urgent Appeal KOR 002/1208/OBS 211December 10, 2008

1 See Joint Written Statement submitted by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) to the ninth session of the Human Rights Council, August 25, 2008, as well as FORUM-ASIA and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Joint Fact-Finding Mission to South Korea, Final Report, 2008.

2 As of the end of 2008, those policies remained under discussion and had not yet been implemented.

3 See above-mentioned Joint Written Statement submitted by ALRC and FORUM-ASIA to the ninth session of the Human Rights Council as well as FORUM-ASIA and AHRC above-mentioned Mission Report.

4 See Amnesty International, Public Statement ASA 25/011/2008, November 28, 2008.

5 See above-mentioned Joint Written Statement submitted by ALRC and FORUM-ASIA to the ninth session of the Human Rights Council as well as FORUM-ASIA and AHRC above-mentioned Mission Report.

6 See MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society.

7 Mr. Jung Gab-deuk and Mr. Nam Taek-gyu were subsequently released on bail, and Ms. Jin Young-ok and Mr. Lee Young-shik were released on probation.

8 See KCTU.

9 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.

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