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Human Rights in Republic of Korea

Amnesty International Report 2009

Head of state: Lee Myung-bak (replaced Roh Moo-hyun in February)
Head of government: Han Seung-soo (replaced Han Duck-soo in February)
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice
Population: 48.4 million
Life expectancy: 77.9 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 5/5 per 1,000

Riot police used excessive force when dispersing largely peaceful protesters demonstrating against US beef imports. Large numbers of irregular migrants were deported amid reports of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment during arrest. There was heightened concern about freedoms of expression, assembly and association of protesters, unionists and journalists. No executions took place but 58 people remained on death row. The Special Bill to Abolish the Death Penalty lapsed in March.

Excessive use of force

Candlelight protests against the resumption of US beef imports attracted tens of thousands of people and took place almost daily from May to early July. During the largely peaceful protests some police beat protesters with shields and batons, fired water cannons at close range and denied medical care to protesters in detention. Protesters suffered injuries such as broken bones, concussion, temporary blindness and punctured eardrums.

Migrants' rights

In September, the government announced its intention to deport approximately half of irregular migrant workers, an estimated 220,000 people, by 2012. There was a growing number of cases of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of migrant workers during arrests in the ongoing crackdown.

  • In November, about 280 immigration officials and police raided factories and dormitories in Maseok, Gyeonggi province, where at least 110 regular and irregular migrant workers were indiscriminately apprehended en masse. One female migrant worker was not permitted to go to the toilet, but was instead forced to urinate in public. One male migrant worker broke his leg when he tried to escape, after which he was handcuffed and made to wait five hours before being allowed to go to hospital.
  • In May, the government deported Torna Limbu, a Nepalese national, and Abdus Sabur, a Bangladeshi national, president and vice-president respectively of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants' Trade Union (MTU), despite a call from the National Human Rights Commission for a stay of deportation until it could investigate allegations of beatings by immigration officials during their arrests. There were concerns that the two men were targeted specifically because of their union activities.
  • Freedom of expression, assembly and association

    Labour movement

    According to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, irregular employment protests occurred at more than 30 different factories. Security forces used excessive force against striking irregular workers, who were protesting because they received less pay than regular workers for equal work. They also faced losing their jobs after two years so that their employers could avoid regularizing their status in line with the 2007 Contract Based Employment Law.

    Media independence

    The chief executives and presidents of the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), Korean Broadcasting Advertising Corporation, Arirang TV, Sky Life and Yonhap Television Network (YTN) were replaced by supporters of the government.

  • Protests against the appointment of the new YTN president Ku Bon-hong, a former aide to President Lee Myung-bak, resulted in Ku Bon-hong suing 12 trade union journalists and firing six journalists for "interfering with business".
  • Conscientious objectors

    Police imprisoned at least 408 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, for refusing compulsory military service. This significant drop in numbers compared to the 733 imprisoned in 2007 was largely because cases were not heard ahead of plans to introduce an alternative to military service in 2009. However, in December the Ministry of Defence put the plans on hold due to lack of public support.

  • Lee Gil-joon, a conscripted riot police officer was sentenced to one and a half years in prison for failure to return to duty and disobeying orders because he opposed using violence to disperse demonstrators during the candlelight protests.
  • Arbitrary arrests and detentions National Security Law

    2008 marked 60 years since the National Security Law (NSL) was introduced. As of December, there were at least nine detained individuals charged under the vague provisions of the NSL.

  • On 26 August, police arrested seven activists from the Socialist Workers League of Korea, including a university professor, Oh Se-chul, for violating article three (forming anti-state groups) and article seven (praising or sympathizing with anti-state groups) of the NSL. Seoul Central District Court rejected the arrest warrants submitted by the prosecutor's office on grounds of insufficient evidence. On 14 October, police re-submitted the arrest warrant for Professor Oh, but it was again rejected by the court due to lack of evidence.
  • Refugees and asylum-seekers

    A total of 364 applications for refugee status were submitted in 2008. Thirty-six people were granted refugee status and 22 were given humanitarian protection. Seventy-nine applications were rejected. Serious concerns were raised about the lack of resources in immigration offices as the backlog of asylum claims reached over 1,200 cases.

    Violence against women and girls

    In January, President-elect Lee Myung-bak said he would not call on Japan to apologize for its wartime atrocities.

    In October, the South Korean parliament passed a resolution calling for justice for the survivors of Japan's military sexual slavery system during World War II.

    Death penalty

    South Korea's unofficial moratorium on executions continued. Fifty-eight prisoners were on death row at the end of the year. The Special Bill to Abolish the Death Penalty lapsed in March. Two new bills on the abolition of the death penalty were introduced in the National Assembly.

    Amnesty International visits

    Amnesty International delegates visited South Korea in March, July and October/November.

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