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Human Rights in Republic of Korea

Amnesty International Report 2008

Head of State: Roh Moo-hyun
Head of government: Han Duck-soo (replaced Han Myeong-sook in March)
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice
Population: 48.1 million
Life expectancy: 77.9 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 5/5 per 1,000

In October, the Minister of Justice Chung Soung-jin announced his support for death penalty abolition. However, a National Assembly final vote on a draft abolition bill did not progress.

Migrant workers continued to have limited protection or redress against discrimination and abuse. Many were detained in poor conditions. There was a worrying increase in detentions under the National Security Law, with at least eight prisoners of conscience still imprisoned under it.


Presidential elections dominated political debate. Lee Myung-bak was elected on 19 December, to take office in February 2008.

There were developments in inter-Korean relations with top-level political meetings. Economic co-operation was a focal point of the dialogue, with the first cross-border train journey since 1950.

South Korean troops in Iraq and a Free Trade Agreement with the USA in April attracted heated debate.

Death penalty

There were no executions. Two death row inmates died, one of natural causes, the other committed suicide. Sixty-four prisoners were on death row at the end of the year. South Korea became abolitionist in practice in December, following a decade-long unofficial moratorium on executions.

National Security Law

The 1948 National Security Law (NSL) was not amended or repealed. As of December, there were at least eight detainees charged under vague NSL charges compared to one in 2006.

  • A freelance journalist, Lee Si-woo, was charged with violating NSL Articles 4, 7 and 8, bailed, but kept under strict surveillance. He was accused of disclosing military secrets after he published information on the US military presence in South Korea. His reportage was based on information obtained legally from the government and military under freedom of information laws and data he collected in 2002 as a leading member of the Korean Campaign to Ban Landmines (KCBL). No legal concerns were raised at the time, and many of the sources used were freely available on the internet.
  • Freedom of expression

    There were widespread strikes protesting irregular employment and the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. In July, Oh Jung-ryul and Jung Gwang-hoon the Co-Chairs of the Korean Alliance against the Korea-US FTA (KoA) were arrested on charges of carrying out "illegal" and "non/un-permitted" protests. They were released in November. The KoA had reportedly served the requisite notice to the government about holding the protest, and the constitution does not require a permit for rallies.

    Conscientious objectors

    In December, at least 733 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, were in prison following convictions in 2006 and 2007 for refusing compulsory military service. In October, newspaper sources cited the government's intention to reform military conscription by 2009, offering more, but potentially longer, alternatives to military service.


    In November, there were reportedly 502,082 migrant workers, including at least 230,000 irregular migrant workers. The 2003 Act Concerning the Employment Permit for Migrant Workers failed to provide adequate safeguards against discrimination and abuse. In August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern that migrant workers can only be granted non-renewable, 3-year contracts, face severe restrictions on job mobility, and obstacles in obtaining legal protection and redress against discriminatory treatment and other abuses in the workplace.

    Thousands of irregular migrant workers were arrested, detained and immediately deported. Some were detained for months for administrative reasons or whilst attempting to recover unpaid salaries. The Ministry of Justice was reportedly proposing revisions to the Immigration Law dispensing with the need for officials conducting checks on migrant workers to present identification documents or obtain warrants or detention orders prior to arrests.

    Poor conditions were reported at migrant detention centres. Ten migrants detained pending deportation were killed and 17 others were injured during a fire at the Yeosu detention facility in February. The relatives of those killed in the fire were given compensation. The other detainees were promptly deported back to the countries of origin, many without any compensation or recourse to unpaid wages.

    n July and August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern about trafficking linked to international marriages. The CERD and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants noted that foreign women married to Korean nationals were not adequately protected against abuses perpetrated by their husbands or by international marriage agencies.

    Arrest and deportation of MTU officials

    In December, three senior officials of the Migrant Workers' Trade Union (MTU), President Kajiman Khapung, Vice President Raju Kumar Gurung and General Secretary Abul Basher M Moniruzzaman (Masum) were forcibly returned to their countries of origin without due process. They had been arrested in November whilst planning campaigns against proposed revisions to the Immigration Law. They were reportedly detained for being in an irregular or undocumented situation. At least 20 MTU members had been arrested in such crackdowns since August 2007.

    Amnesty International visits

    Amnesty International delegates visited South Korea in May, August/September and October.

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