Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - South Korea (Republic of Korea)

Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The South Korean government's commitment to human rights and democratic reform seemed to weaken steadily in 1990 as restrictions on freedom of expression and association increased.

In January, two opposition political parties merged with the ruling party to form the Democratic Liberal Party (DPL), which in turn controlled more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. It pledged to use its power to effect political reforms and reconciliation with North Korea. To counter widespread skepticism about its sincerity, the government released 22 political prisoners, including Suh Sung, who had been incarcerated for nearly 20 years.56

By the middle of the year, however, that skepticism seemed well founded. As in 1989, writers, publishers, political activists and others were arrested and prosecuted for expressing views contrary to those of the government on reunification between the two Koreas, or for engaging in personal pro-unification diplomacy through unauthorized travel to North Korea.

The number of political prisoners, one indicator of this gap between governmen rhetoric and reality, continued to rise. By the end of July 1990 there were nearly 1,400 prisoners detained for politically motivated crimes, according to Minkahyop, an organization of families of these prisoners, although many of these were charged with acts of violence. Nearly half were workers and labor activists. Some 435 were detained under the National Security Law, a broadly worded statute providing stiff penalties for anyone accused of supporting or benefiting an "anti-state organization." Like the National Security Law, the Law on Assembly and Demonstration, which allows the government to ban a wide range of gatherings, also remained in force in 1990; as of June, some 200 had been arrested under it. The Agency for National Security Planning, historically involved in domestic surveillance and interrogation of political opponents as well as espionage cases, had no new legal limits placed on its activities, and continued to be involved in the arrest of dissidents, labor activists and publishers suspected of sympathizing with North Korea. Though fewer than before, incidents of torture and mistreatment of detainees continued to be reported.

One of those arrested under the National Security Law was Hong Song-dam, chairman of the Kwangju chapter of the National Artists Federation (Minminyon). Hong's main offense was to have sent to Pyongyang, North Korea a photographic slide of a large mural that he had painted. In June, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Hong alleged that he had been tortured during his three weeks of detention by the Agency for National Security Planning.

On September 29, 1990, Kim Keun-tae, a prominent leader of the opposition movement and recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1987, was sentenced to three years in prison for violations of the National Security Law and the Law on Assembly and Demonstration. He was charged in connection with demonstrations on May 9, 1990 by at least 100,000 people protesting the formation of the new governing party. The demonstration led to a firebomb attack on the US Information Service building in downtown Seoul; as many as 1,900 demonstrators were detained by the police. Kim was not involved in the violence. It appears that he was arbitrarily singled out because of the influential role that he was playing in Chonnminyon, the movement to unify the opposition, since he was the only person prosecuted for a serious offense in connection with the demonstration.

In early October, the limits of democratization were brought into sharp focus when an agent in the Defense Security Command, the military's counterintelligence agency, publicly revealed the existence of an extensive spying program that kept at least 1,300 politicians, labor leaders, academics, religious leaders, journalists and others under regular surveillance. President Roh Tae Woo immediately fired his Defense Minister and the head of the Defense Security Command (DSC) but replaced them with loyalists. The new Defense Minister, Lee Jong-koo, said in October that the DSC woud no longer engage in domestic surveillance activities.

Increasing trade union activity gave rise to a concerted crackdown on labor organizers and independent trade unions, yielding violence on both sides. The government set a hardline tone when, on January 20, it unveiled a tough program to crack down on labor. President Roh told his key ministers that "labor problems should be coped with resolutely at an early stage and forces behind illegal disputes should be subject to stern punishment." The Labor Ministry produced a new set of guidelines, including a ban on strikes over such "political demands" as seeking the release of imprisoned workers. The right to organize and bargain collectively continued to be undermined by restrictive laws; company goons and plainclothes and riot police continued to be used to break up strikes, sometimes using excessive force; and hundreds of union leaders and organizers were arrested for their union activities in violation of their freedom of assembly and association.

Thousands of riot police were mobilized in April to crush strikes at the Korean Broadcasting System in Seoul, and at the Hyundai companies, a huge industrial conglomerate with shipbuilding and other facilities in the port city of Ulsan. In addition, throughout 1990, the government harshly suppressed efforts by workers to form an independent nationwide union federation, Chonnohyop. The government declared the federation illegal, arrested its key leaders, harassed member unions by launching probes into their internal affairs and accounting, and blocked their rallies and demonstrations on the grounds that it feared violence.

The government also failed to amend laws prohibiting public and private school teachers from organizing unions.57 An independent teachers union, Chunkyojo (Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union), formed in May 1989 and declared illegal by the government even before its inauguration, saw thousands of its members and supporters arrested for participating in rallies and demonstrations. Some 1,500 Chunkyojo members were dismissed from their jobs for union-related activities in 1989, and ideological tests were introduced the same year to screen out potential pro-union college graduates from obtaining teaching positions.

US Policy

The Bush administration in 1990 continued to state that it was committed to human rights and democratic reforms in South Korea. But its failure to comment publicly and forcefully when the number and severity of human rights violations increased sent the opposite signal.

Notably, the administration missed several opportunities to comment publicly on specific human rights abuses. One such occasion was President Roh's meeting with President Bush in Washington on June 6. The meeting followed Roh's "summit" in San Francisco with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev where steps toward reunification and improved relations between North and South Korea were discussed, indicating an easing of the concerns over subversion from the north that underlay many South Korean restrictions on human rights. The Washington meeting also took place shortly before a special legislative session was due to begin in Seoul, reportedly to take up reforms in the National Security Law, labor laws, and various other statutes limiting human rights. Asia Watch publicly urged the administration to use the occasion to press the South Korean government to implement legal reforms, including revisions of the National Security Law, and to release those imprisoned for non-violent political activity. However, as far as could be determined from the published accounts of the talks, neither President Bush nor the State Department made any reference to human rights concerns.

US officials in Seoul told Asia Watch that it was current policy to raise human rights concerns only through quiet, diplomatic channels because of the Korean government's sensitivity and the danger that public criticism could give rise to anti-Americanism. They rejected the view that the US embassy should be publicly outspoken about human rights abuses, or that it should demonstrate its concern about detainees subjected to abuses by seeking to visit them. The embassy was also reluctant to consider sending observers to trials of trade-union leaders and others charged for peaceful political activities, either as an act of protest over the prosecutions or as a signal of US concern that trial procedures meet international standards of due process.

There is no evidence that this quiet diplomacy is working to curb Korean abuses. At a time when South Korea is seeking to become a member of the United Nations, the US should use Korea's desire for international acceptance to press publicly for improvements in the human rights situation.

The United States continues to be one of South Korea's most important trade markets. South Korea exported $20.2 billion worth of goods to the US in 1988 and and $19.7 billion in 1989. In 1989, over $80 million in insurance and investment guarantees were given to US investors in South Korea through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).58 OPIC is mandated by Congress to "take into account...all available information about observance of and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms" in countries receiving OPIC assistance. Other federal statutes59 also link US trade benefits to the recipient government's respect for internationally recognized worker rights, including the right to freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively. In November, Asia Watch testified during the annual OPIC review and called for the termination of OPIC assistance to South Korea due to the failure of the Korean government to take steps to adopt and implement labor rights.

The Work of Asia Watch

An Asia Watch delegation visited South Korea from June 5 to 17 to examine freedom of expression and labor rights.

Based in large part on information gathered during the mission, Asia Watch in November published Retreat from Reform: Labor Rights and Freedom of Expression in South Korea.

In December, Asia Watch published a newsletter, "The Plantados of Asia: "Non-Converted Political Prisoners in South Korea." The publication described the plight of 57 long-term political prisoners, 25 of them men in their 60s and older, detained under the National Security Law and the Anti-Communist Law.60 They are languishing in prison with no hope for parole or inclusion in government amnesties because they have refused to submit to government pressure to "convert" their political beliefs from communism to democracy. Requiring prisoners to sign "conversion" statements violates their rights to freedom of expression and conscience as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights and the South Korean Constitution. The Korean government sent a letter to Asia Watch on December 13 responding to the newsletter. It said that most of the prisoners in question were convicted North Korean espionage agents, that they were not being coerced into "conversion" but rather instilled with "a respect for the laws of our democratic society," and that Asia Watch had failed to take into account "the constant menace of internal subversion by the North."

Throughout 1990, Asia Watch conveyed its concerns directly to the Korean government on a number of individual prisoner cases, such as Dan Byong-ho, head of Chonnohyop, and Yun Yong-kyu, chairman of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union.

At the end of April, Asia Watch wrote to President Roh expressing concern about reports of injuries and arrests during violent clashes between riot police and workers in Ulsan at the Hyundai Heavy Industries; between police and student demonstrators in Seoul; and between police and demonstrators in Kwangju. Asia Watch urged that Korean law enforcement officials respond to the demonstrations in compliance with the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, which provides that they may use force "only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty."

In July and August, Asia Watch protested the imprisonment of Kim Keun-tae and called for his prompt and immediate release. The Director of the Human Rights Division of the Ministry of Justice responded to various Asia Watch appeals on behalf of Kim by saying that he and fellow members of the opposition coalition Chonminnyon had referred to the South Korean government as a "pro-American military dictatorship." This and other phrases in the Chonminnyon charter were deemed to be "concepts...used by North Korea to bring about instability and incite revolution in South Korea" and therefore to violate the National Security Law. He also equated Kim's participation in rallies with "instigating violence," though without providing any evidence of instigation.

In response to the Asia Watch report Retreat from Reform, the Korean government issued a public statement critical of the report, charging that it was "lacking in objective and reasonable grounds and ignored the legal order in the Republic."

Asia Watch continued to be an important source of information for those in Congress concerned with human rights in Korea. With support from Asia Watch, ten members of Congress sent a cable in mid-February to Korean authorities calling for the release of Suh Sung; he was released two weeks later. In March, the Congressional Working Group on International Labor Rights, a bipartisan group of 50 US senators and representatives, wrote to South Korean officials about the deterioration of labor rights in South Korea. In October, a letter by 46 members of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus focused on the detention of political prisoners and the "conversion" system.

The United States continues to be one of South Korea's most important trade markets. South Korea exported $20.2 billion worth of goods to the United States in 1988 and $19.7 billion in 1989.61 In 1989, over $80 million in insurance and investment guarantees were given to US investors in South Korea through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).62 OPIC is mandated by Congress to "take into account...all available information about observance of and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms" in countries receiving OPIC assistance. Other federal statutes63 also link US trade benefits to the recipient governments' respect for internationally recognized worker rights, including the right to freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively.

56 Suh was arrested in April 1971 on charges of "anti-state activities" and held until his parole in February 1990. He was one of Korea's most well known and longest-serving political prisoners. His original death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment in 1973.

57 In 1989, the National Assembly passed an amendment to the Trade Union Law which would have lifted the ban on union organizing by public-school teachers; President Roh vetoed it.

58 OPIC guarantees to South Korea declined steadily in 1990 due to a ceiling imposed by the OPIC board of directors which was lifted late in the year.

59 Section 502(3)(8) of the 1984 Trade Act.

60 The Anti-Communist Law was enacted in 1961 by President Park Chung-lee to block the activities of Communist and pro-Communist organizations which were considered a threat to national security.

61 Official Statistics, US Department of Commerce, July 26, 1990.

62 OPIC guarantees to South Korea declined steadily in 1990 due to a ceiling imposed by the OPIC board of directors. The ceiling was lifted late in the year.

63 Section 502(3)(8) of the 1984 Trade Act.

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