Covering events from January - December 2003

Long-term prisoners of conscience convicted under the National Security Law were released. Over 800 conscientious objectors, mainly Jehovah's Witnesses, continued to be detained. A revised Terrorism Prevention Bill was under consideration by the National Assembly at the end of the year. No executions were carried out.


In February, a new president Roh Moo-hyun was sworn in. The new government included three human rights lawyers: the President; Kang Kum-sil, who was appointed Minister of Justice; and Ko Young-koo, the Director of the National Intelligence Service.

Corruption scandals dogged the de facto ruling Uri Party, the Millennium Democratic Party and the main opposition Grand National Party, leading to the resignations of close associates of President Roh. In December, under pressure and following a Supreme Court decision overriding a presidential veto, President Roh signed into legislation a bill approved by parliament calling for a special counsel to investigate corruption allegations.

Improvements in links between the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) continued. Rail and road connections between the two countries were established for the first time since the Korean War ended in 1953. Aid to North Korea continued in the form of food and fertilizers; some was distributed by the World Food Programme, some was given to South Korean non-governmental organizations implementing agricultural projects, and a substantial portion was given to North Korea as bilateral aid or in the form of food loans. Family reunions took place in February, June and September, and groups from South Korea were able to visit North Korea by road for the first time.

The South Korean government participated in talks in Beijing, China, to defuse security tensions in the Korean peninsula. Internationally, the government committed itself to send thousands of troops to Iraq. These troops had not been deployed by the end of the year.

Death penalty

No executions have been carried out since former President Kim Dae-jung took office in February 1998. It was believed that at least 56 prisoners remained under sentence of death at the end of 2003. According to reports, death row prisoners continued to be handcuffed at all times for the first year after sentencing.

A bill calling for the abolition of the death penalty which had been submitted to the National Assembly in November 2001 made no further progress. It appeared to have stalled in deliberations by the Standing Committee for Judiciary and Legislation, despite bipartisan support from 155 members of the 273-member National Assembly.

National security legislation

Five long-term prisoners of conscience imprisoned under the National Security Law (NSL) were released in April. The National Human Rights Commission reportedly began a review of the NSL.

  • Park Kyung-soon, who had been serving a seven-year sentence imposed in 1998 for "formation and membership of an enemy-benefiting organization", was released in April. AI had repeatedly expressed concern at reports of his deteriorating health.
  • Ha Young-ok, a graduate student at Seoul University, was released in April. He had been arrested in August 1999 and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment for organizing an "anti-state revolutionary group" and "communicating with a North Korean spy".

However, no changes were made to the NSL. This provides for long sentences or the death penalty for "anti-state" activities and "espionage" which are very loosely defined. The NSL has often been used arbitrarily against people for exercising the rights to freedom of expression and association. In October, at least 17 prisoners were reportedly being held under the NSL.

  • Song Du-yol, a 59-year-old German citizen and a professor at Muenster University in Germany, was reportedly interrogated for several hours by up to 10 agents without access to a lawyer after his arrival in Seoul on 22 September. He was detained, allegedly to prevent him fleeing the country and destroying evidence, and charged under the NSL with "praising the enemy" (North Korea), a charge which carries a minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment and is punishable by death. He had not been sentenced by the end of the year.

In October a revised Terrorism Prevention Bill was introduced to the National Assembly. The revised Bill contained provisions that would further empower the National Intelligence Service, a secretive agency that reportedly has been responsible for serious human rights violations. It also contained vaguely worded clauses such as Article 13 (false reports or spreading wrong information regarding "terrorism") that could be used to increase surveillance on political activists and allow greater government monitoring of the means of communication used by activists and civil society in general, increasing the potential for human rights abuses.

Conscientious objectors

About 800 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, remained in prison at the end of the year for their refusal on religious grounds to perform military service. Every year, about 600 men refuse to accept military conscription orders and are detained for periods ranging from 18 months to three years. By the end of the year the Constitutional Court had still not ruled on proposals for an alternative to military service. Although there appeared to be a reduction in the length of detention, conscientious objectors continued to be given a criminal record which negatively affected their chances of employment. At least four people claimed conscientious objector status for reasons other than religious beliefs in 2003.

Trade unionists

Trade union leaders who organized strikes and demonstrations to protect their basic rights were harassed and arrested. Trade unionists were protesting against the government's economic policies, including restructuring which had led to mass redundancies; inadequate social welfare provision; and the failure of the authorities to prosecute employers engaging in illegal termination of employment contracts.

At least 63 trade unionists were arrested. All were awaiting trial at the end of the year. Six trade union leaders committed suicide to highlight the precarious situation of Korean workers.

Migrant workers

New legislation came into force during the year which introduced a new employment permit system. This requires migrant workers to renew their employment contracts annually and obliges those staying for over three years to leave Korea and reapply after a year. The act is not applicable to foreign workers who had stayed for more than four years as of 31 March. There were concerns about possible government action including mass deportations to implement the new policy.

Women's rights

There was a high incidence of domestic violence and studies showed that a significant factor in the increase was the economic crisis of the late 1990s. Discrimination against women and sexual harassment in the workplace were reported and there was a large gap between the average salaries paid to women and to men. An Anti-Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Bill submitted to the National Assembly in 2001 appeared to have been stalled during deliberations by the Standing Committee for Judiciary and Legislation. Legislation to prevent domestic violence and discrimination against women had been strengthened by the passage of laws and special acts in 2001, but implementation remained a matter of concern.

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