Covering events from January-December 2001

Republic of Korea
Head of state: Kim Dae-jung
Head of government: Lee Han-dong
Capital: Seoul
Population: 47.7 million
Official language: Korean
Death penalty: retentionist

Despite promises and high expectations of improvements, the government failed to bring about major changes in the field of human rights. While there was a reduction in the number of people detained under the National Security Law (NSL), short-term detentions, especially of trade union leaders, continued to be reported. There were no executions. A National Human Rights Commission Act was passed in May and a 11-member National Human Rights Commission was established in November. Prisoners enjoyed better access to relatives, lawyers, correspondence and newspapers. However, many prisons still lacked adequate heating and ventilation. There were allegations that those who appealed against their sentences or complained of ill-treatment in prisons were subjected to arbitrary harsh punishments. Some 1,600 conscientious objectors to the military service, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, were reported to be serving prison sentences of up to three years. An Anti-Terrorist Bill was introduced in the National Assembly at the end of the year, despite criticism from opposition parties and human rights activists.


Persistent economic difficulties and a lack of direction in the "Sunshine Policy," which calls for improvements in relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, resulted in a decline in popularity of the Kim Dae-jung government. The ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) led by President Kim Dae-jung performed badly in the National Assembly elections in October leading to President Kim stepping down as the chairman of the MDP. A motion of no-confidence in Lim Dong-won, widely regarded as the architect of the "Sunshine Policy", was passed by 148 votes to 119 by the National Assembly in September and was followed by the resignation en masse of the Korean cabinet. The "Sunshine Policy" lost further momentum with the failure of inter-Korean ministerial talks on 14 November. The talks broke up without setting a date or venue for future meetings, dashing hopes for the reunion of families separated by the Korean War and halting progress on economic relations.

Lack of legal reforms

Expected legal reforms did not take place. Despite promises by President Kim in 1998, when he took charge as President, to abolish the "poisonous clauses" of the National Security Law (NSL), the NSL had not been amended by the end of 2001 and at least 38 people were detained under the NSL. The vaguely worded clauses of articles of the NSL, the Security Surveillance Law, the Obstruction of Official Duty Act (OODA) and the Anti-Demonstration Law (ADL) remained in force, providing ample legislative discretion for law enforcement officials to detain activists expressing views opposed to the government's policies. Trade union leaders were subjected to short-term detention in an attempt to suppress their rights to freedom of expression and association. The NSL, the OODA and the ADL gave law enforcement officials the power to prohibit trade union activists from demonstrating in most public spaces. At least 600 trade unionists were detained under this legislation.

  • Park Kyung-soon, who was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment under the NSL for reportedly leading the Youngnam Committee, remained in Pusan prison throughout the year. He was a prisoner of conscience and was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. In July 1998, 15 members of the Youngnam Committee had been arrested and charged with membership of "an anti-state organization" under Article 3 of the NSL. However, they were later convicted of "participating in enemy-benefiting activities" under Article 7 of the NSL. While 12 of the defendants were released, Park Kyung-soon and two other men were sentenced to prison terms; the two others had since completed their sentences.
  • In June, Ch'oe Jin-su's appeal against his two-and-a-half-year sentence was rejected. He was one of five people sentenced to terms of imprisonment in 2000 under the National Security Law for organizing and participating in the People's Revolutionary Party (Minhyukdang), which was accused of being "an anti-state organization". An appeal by Im T'ae-yol, who had also been sentenced to two years and six months' imprisonment, was pending at the end of 2001. Shim Jae-ch'un, Ha Young-ok and Kim Kyung-hwan were serving sentences of between three and a half and eight years' imprisonment.
Death penalty

A bill to abolish the death penalty was supported by 155 of the 273 members of the National Assembly. The bill was being considered by the Standing Committee for the Judiciary and Legislation at the end of the year. No executions had taken place since President Kim Dae-jung came to power in February 1998. Despite the apparent existence of a de facto moratorium on executions, death sentences continued to be imposed on people convicted of serious crimes. At least 51 prisoners were on death row at the end of 2001. Prisoners sentenced to death were reportedly handcuffed at all times during the first year after the sentence was passed.

National Human Rights Commission

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Act was passed in May 2001 and the NHRC was established in November amid hopes that it could lead to better monitoring of human rights issues, including potential improvement of prison conditions. The NHRC will be composed of 11 commissioners, including at least four women.

However, there are concerns that the NHRC lacked adequate investigative powers. It cannot investigate petitions which have been completed, are under investigation by other investigative agencies, or where remedies are being pursued through other procedures. The NHRC cannot compel national agencies to provide evidence. The National Human Rights Commission Act does not provide for exemption from liability for defamation suits in the course of their duties for NHRC for commissioners and staff. There were also concerns about the possible politicization of the selection process for commissioners.

Conscientious objectors

More than 1,600 conscientious objectors to military service, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, were serving sentences of up to three years' imprisonment at the end of the year. All Korean men are expected to serve 26 months in the military. Over 500 conscientious objectors were believed to be imprisoned every year. After completing their prison sentences, conscientious objectors were not considered eligible for public office, or for travel to many countries.

Prison conditions

Lack of heating was a serious concern given that prisoners were sometimes held in temperatures as low as -20°C. Overcrowding and lack of access to medical care were also of concern.

There were reports of harsh and arbitrary punishments being imposed, especially on prisoners who appealed against their sentences or complained of ill-treatment in prison. These included prolonged solitary confinement for up to 60 days; some prisoners were kept handcuffed during this period. Death-row prisoners were reportedly handcuffed at all times during their first year in prison and were forced to eat with their hands tied behind their back.


The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was given permission by the government to establish an office in Seoul. Since the Republic of Korea signed the UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol in 1992, 104 people had applied for refugee status. Most were turned down or voluntarily withdrew their applications. In February, 26-year-old Tadasse Deresse Degu became the first person to be granted refugee status. However, the refugee recognition process was not transparent and asylum-seekers reportedly had no legal right to seek asylum. There was continuing concern that asylum-seekers were at risk of being returned to countries where they could face serious human rights violations.

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