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State of the World's Minorities 2006 - South Korea

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 22 December 2005
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2006 - South Korea, 22 December 2005, available at: [accessed 29 November 2015]
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.

The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is less homogeneous than its northern neighbour. It has seen an influx of 'new' minorities attracted by the country's strong economic output, much as in Japan and Taiwan, and also has significant religious minorities. The Chinese, at between perhaps 1 to 3 per cent of the population of the country constitute the largest ethnic minority in South Korea, and many of them are relatively recent arrivals. There is no clear majority religion in the country, though close to half may be Christians.

It is however in the numerical strength of religious minorities and their treatment that the south distinguishes itself markedly from North Korea. These minorities, and all religious practices in general, continue to be treated benignly in 2004–5. One notable problem for one minority involves the issue of military service and Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea. Since legislation does not permit any exemption or alternative service for those who have a religious objection to serving in the country's armed forces, members of this minority were still being imprisoned for their refusal in 2004–5. A number of district courts, prior to and during 2004, had acquitted conscientious objectors who were Jehovah's Witnesses of criminal charges over their refusal to serve in the military. In August 2004 however, the Constitutional Court handed down a judgment confirming the constitutionality of legislation mandating the imprisonment of conscientious objectors who are members of a religious minority. It was reported in 2005 that a member of the National Assembly has proposed new legislation that would permit alternative service to qualified candidates, including members of minorities who would object for religious reasons. Amnesty International reported that in June 2004, 'at least 758 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, were detained for refusing to perform compulsory military service' (Amnesty International Annual Report 2005).

Some progress occurred for migrant workers in August 2004 with the entry into effect of the Employment Permit System Act. On the face of it, the legislation provides a first legal framework to control and monitor migrant workers, and some protection of basic rights. The legislation also would permit the immediate detention and deportation of undocumented workers who have stayed in South Korea for more than four years (migrant workers are only permitted to work in South Korea for a maximum of three years, and only for one employer). Reports mention the deportation of some 3,000 migrant workers, and the voluntary departure of perhaps 10,000 more, between November 2003 and January 2004. There were some estimates of 180,000 undocumented migrant workers not registered with the authorities at the end of 2004.

When a Migrant Workers Trade Union was formed on 24 April 2005, the response of the authorities was to crack down on the leaders of this and other migrant workers' rights organizations, with the president of the Migrant Workers Trade Union being arrested in May 2005 and detained by immigration authorities. Such crackdowns on the leadership of migrant workers groups have occurred repeatedly in 2004 and 2005. This has been followed by new legislation adopted by the National Assembly in March 2005 imposing harsher punishments on local businesses hiring illegal migrant workers.

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