Over 150 political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were released in amnesties, but hundreds of others remained in prison. Almost 400 people were arrested under the National Security Law and hundreds of trade unionists were detained or had warrants issued against them; many were prisoners of conscience. There were reports of police ill-treatment and of prison conditions that did not conform to international standards. At least 37 people remained under sentence of death at the end of the year. There were no executions.

President Kim Dae-jung, himself a former political prisoner, took office in February. His commitments to human rights reforms included plans to establish a national human rights commission, improve human rights education, promote women's rights, and ensure that law and practice conformed with international human rights standards. He initiated a so-called "sunshine policy" towards the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) which included increased civilian contacts with North Korea.

Thousands of workers in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) lost their jobs as a consequence of the severe economic crisis. Thousands of undocumented migrant workers, many of whom had not been paid for months, lost their jobs and were forced to leave the country. Women were often laid off before men. Public protests and strike action over job losses resulted in police crack-downs and arrests.

In February the National Assembly adopted amendments to labour legislation allowing mass redundancies for the first time. The government said that from 1999 it would permit teachers to form trade unions and civil servants to form a "consultative body".

In April the government announced that the Agency for National Security Planning would be renamed the National Intelligence Service and no longer used as a political tool or permitted to carry out human rights violations. However, the Agency did not appear to have been substantially reformed.

In July the Ministry of Justice announced that "conversion" statements renouncing communist or left-wing ideology would no longer be required from political prisoners as a condition of release. Certain categories of political prisoners who refused to sign a "conversion" statement had suffered discriminatory treatment and been denied early release. The government said that all political prisoners must sign instead a "law-abiding oath" to qualify for early release. Many prisoners refused, seeing this as a continued violation of their right to freedom of conscience and requiring them to respect laws which contravened international standards.

In September President Kim Dae-jung told Amnesty International delegates that "poisonous elements" of the National Security Law (see previous Amnesty International Reports) would be reviewed in the near future, but the review had not taken place by the end of the year.

A draft human rights act, aiming to establish a national human rights commission, was published in September. There was widespread concern that the draft law did not give the proposed commission independence, a wide mandate or sufficient powers to carry out its work.

Over 150 political prisoners were released in two presidential amnesties in March and August. Among them were Professor Park Chang-hee, Buddhist monk Jin Kwan, and long-term political prisoner Kang Hui-chol (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Prisoners released after the August amnesty were threatened with reimprisonment if they took part in certain political or anti-government activities.

Some 360 political prisoners, including many prisoners of conscience, were still held after the August amnesty. Those denied release because they refused to sign a "law-abiding oath" included 17 elderly political prisoners arrested on spying charges under the National Security Law who had been held for between 28 and 40 years. Sentenced to life imprisonment, they had been denied release on parole because of their alleged communist views. Most were reported to be in poor health and held in isolation. Woo Yong-gak, aged 69, had been held for 40 years and suffered from muscular paralysis resulting from a stroke. Hong Myong-ki, aged 69 and held for 36 years, was reported to besuffering from heart disease. Other National Security Law prisoners who continued to be held included Cho Sang-nok and Kang Yong-ju, who had been convicted after unfair trials in 1978 and 1985 respectively.

Almost 400 people, including students, youth workers, publishers and workers, were arrested during the year under the National Security Law. Many were prisoners of conscience and sentenced to a short prison term or suspended sentence under Article 7 of the law which punishes the vaguely defined acts of "praising" and "benefiting" North Korea. They included Lee Sang-kwan, arrested in April for publishing two books about the lives of North Korean women and long-term political prisoners in South Korea, and released after trial; student Ha Young-joon, sentenced to one year's imprisonment in August for posting a socialist text on a computer bulletin board; and youth activist Kim Jong-bak, sentenced to two and a half years' imprisonment in October for leading the Anyang Democratic Young Federation, a community-based group with alleged left-wing principles.

Father Moon Kyu-hyun, a Roman Catholic priest, was arrested in August and accused of "praising" and "benefiting" North Korea during a government-approved visit to North Korea. The prosecution said he had violated the terms of his visit by attending a reunification rally and visiting the tomb of former North Korean President Kim Il Sung. The Reverend Kang Hee-nam, aged 78 (see Amnesty International Report 1998), who was released in the March amnesty, was rearrested in August for organizing a reunification festival at Seoul National University. They were prisoners of conscience. In October both of them were released on bail.

Hundreds of trade unionists, including many prisoners of conscience, were arrested or had warrants of arrest issued against them after a May Day rally and two general strikes in May and July which the authorities said were illegal. The strike action was led by the Minju Nochong, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), to protest against mass redundancies, inadequate social welfare provision, failure to prosecute employers for illegal lay-offs and related issues. Among those arrested were Koh Yong-ju, Secretary General of the KCTU, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison in October for calling an "illegal strike", and Dan Byung-ho, Vice President of the KCTU and President of the Korean Metal Workers Federation, who was arrested on the same charges in October and remained in prison awaiting trial at the end of the year. They were prisoners of conscience.

There were further reports that political and criminal suspects were deprived of sleep, threatened and beaten by law enforcement officials after arrest. At least two detainees died in custody after reported ill- treatment. Park Sun-jong, who was physically disabled, died in February in Songdong Detention Centre in Seoul, the capital. He was reported to have suffered three broken ribs and a brain haemorrhage which a pathologist said were likely to have been caused by external injury.

On several occasions police responded to large demonstrations with mass arrests and excessive force, resulting in injuries. In September, 2,400 workers were detained and dozens of people, including children, were reportedly injured when 10,000 riot police broke a strike at seven Mando Machinery factories. Television pictures of the raid showed policemen beating unarmed demonstrators.

There were reports that prisoners in several detention facilities had been held in handcuffs and chains, beaten and placed in solitary confinement for long periods as punishment for breaking rules. Long-term political prisoners and female political prisoners were among those held in prolonged solitary confinement. Migrant workers, detained pending deportation, were also reportedly ill-treated by immigration detention officials in Seoul. Medical provision throughout the prison system continued to be inadequate. Women were reported to suffer discrimination within the prison system.

At least 37 prisoners remained under sentence of death at the end of the year. In August the death sentences imposed on two Pakistan nationals convicted of murder after unfair trials, Mohammad Ajaz and Amir Jamil, were commuted to life imprisonment. In September President Kim Dae-jung told Amnesty International that he personally opposed the death penalty but needed more time to initiate public debate about abolition.

Asylum-seekers continued to experience problems claiming refugee status. As in previous years, there were no successful applications. Immigration officials reportedly discouraged applicants from making claims and rejected at least 10 claimants, including people who would be at risk of human rights violations if returned to their own countries.

Amnesty International delegates visited the country in February, June and September. During meetings with President Kim Dae-jung and Minister of Justice Park Sang-cheon in September, Amnesty International's Secretary General called for the release of remaining long-term political prisoners and withdrawal of the requirement to sign "law-abiding oaths"; a halt to high numbers of national security and trade union arrests; amendment of the National Security Law in accordance with international standards; and abolition of the death penalty. In October Amnesty International expressed concern to the government that the proposed law to establish a national human rights commission did not conform to international standards.

Amnesty International reports on South Korea issued during the year included: in May, Proposed standards for the National Human Rights Commission; in June, Women's Rights in South Korea, a summary prepared for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; and in September, Summary of Amnesty International's concerns and recommendations to the Government and Foreign Policy and Human Rights.

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