South Korea


The following information is based on the Amnesty International Report 2020/21. This report documents the human rights situation in 149 countries in 2020, as well as providing global and regional analysis. It presents Amnesty lnternational’s concerns and calls for action to governments and others. During 2020, the world was rocked by COVID-19. The pandemic and measures taken to tackle it impacted everyone, but also threw into stark relief, and sometimes aggravated, existing inequalities and patterns of abuse.


Women were subjected to violence and abuse online and by public officials. LGBTI people faced discrimination in media reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, in the military and in education. Logistics companies did not provide adequate protection for delivery workers who faced elevated health risks during the pandemic.


National Assembly elections took place as planned on 15 April 2020, despite an earlier wave of COVID-19 infections, with the Democratic Party winning the majority of seats. Inter- Korean relations deteriorated, as North Korea blamed the South Korean government for failing to stop civil society groups formed by North Koreans who had moved to the South from sending politically themed leaflets into North Korea using balloons or drones.


Pervasive online violence and abuse against women and girls was revealed when the police arrested the main operators of the so- called “Nth Room”, which involved thedistribution of sexually exploitative videos through chatrooms in the Telegram messaging app. The operators and other perpetrators of similar “digital sex crimes” had blackmailed 1,000 women and girls, mostly after luring them into providing sexually exploitative photos or videos.

The government passed laws directed at the better protection of women and children against sexual exploitation and abuse. In April, the National Assembly passed law revisions which increased punishment for digital sex crimes. The age of consent for sexual activity was raised from 13 to 16 without discrimination. A wider range of behaviours involving the possession or use of illegally produced sexually exploitative content was criminalized. The revisions removed the statute of limitations for crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children.

Multiple elected public officials were involved in cases of alleged abuse of authority and sexual misconduct. In April 2020, Oh Keo-don resigned as Mayor of the city of Busan after admitting to sexually harassing a woman staff member. In July, Park Won- soon, Mayor of the capital, Seoul, was accused of sexually abusing a former secretary, but the police investigation of the case ended due to his subsequent death. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) then launched an independent investigation into the abuse case. In September, two government officials were indicted on charges of sexually assaulting a woman originally from North Korea.


In May 2020, a COVID-19 cluster outbreak among club visitors in Itaewon, a nightlife district in Seoul, generated media reports that suggested unfounded links between infections and sexual orientation. Some reports included personal information, such as the age, residence, workplace, occupation and commuting patterns of individuals, impacting on their privacy. The discriminatory reports caused stigma against LGBTI people, many of whom subsequently avoided COVID-19 testing for fear of being “outed”. Civil society called on the government to offer anonymous testing, and such tests were expanded to become nationally available. The authorities also revised their practice in publicizing personal information, so that third parties could not use information such as location history to identify individuals.

In June 2020, the Justice Party and five members of the National Assembly from other parties co-sponsored a bill towards a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, which among other things prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.1 The bill was pending under the relevant committee of the National Assembly at year’s end. The NHRCK also made a submission to the National Assembly, urging it to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, as long recommended by the international community.

Transgender people continued to face institutionalized and other discrimination. In January, the military authorities dismissed a transgender soldier after she underwent gender reassignment surgery. She filed an administrative suit with the court in August 2020, after the military authorities had dismissed her appeal. Another transgender woman withdrew from a women-only university after her admission, due to the pressure of students opposing her enrolment.

A case on the constitutionality of Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act, which criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity in the military, remained pending at the Constitutional Court.


With physical distancing measures in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for delivery services soared. At least 16 delivery workers died from overwork during the year according to a coalition of civil society organizations, while there were ongoing concerns over the lack of timely health and safety measures for workers in the industry. More than 150 people were infected with COVID-19 in outbreak clusters linked to a major logistics centre near Seoul. According to media reports, the company failed to provide necessary hygiene guidelines, clean uniforms and adequate personal protective equipment to workers.Inmates and staff of correctional facilities were at greater risk of COVID-19 infection, as the pre-existing problem of overcrowding persisted. In December 2020, at least 772 people, more than one-third of the inmates at the Seoul Eastern Detention Centre, were infected. The authorities also neglected specific health needs of detainees. In May, a man suffering from a psychosocial disorder died in the Busan Detention Centre after being constrained and placed in solitary confinement overnight, while waiting for a COVID-19 test. His family later filed a complaint of ill-treatment with the NHRCK.

Abortion ceased to be criminalized as the year ended, following the order of a Constitutional Court decision in 2019, but regulatory frameworks to ensure safe access to abortion services were not yet developed.


The arrival of nearly 500 asylum-seekers on Jeju Island in 2018 had sparked a trend of increasingly strict immigration and refugee policies. The Ministry of Justice subsequently changed the interpretation of procedures provided for in the Refugee Act, thereby excluding transit passengers from applying for asylum at Incheon International Airport. The Incheon District Court ruled in June that this exclusion was unlawful, but the ministry appealed, and asylum-seekers could be held at the airport until a final court decision was reached.

Reports that individuals were held at the airport transit zone for months during the COVID-19 pandemic raised concerns among domestic legal experts. They noted that such extended confinement was often without valid reasons and may have constituted arbitrary detention, as it grossly exceeded the necessary time ̶ up to seven days according to the Refugee Act ̶ for examining the admissibility of asylum applications.


The National Assembly passed an amendment to the Assembly and Demonstration Act in May 2020. The revision did not fully abolish the automatic bans on assemblies contained in Article 11, which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, and continued to provide significant space for arbitrary police decisions. Under many circumstances, outdoor assemblies within sight and sound of key venues, including the National Assembly building, the official residence of the Prime Minister and all levels of courts, remained illegal.


From 30 June 2020, people objecting to compulsory military service could apply for alternative service for the first time. The newly created Commission for Examination of Alternative Service operating under the purview of the Ministry of National Defense received 1,959 applications. At year’s end, the commission reviewed only those applications made on religious grounds and accepted 730 of them. In October, the first batch of alternative service personnel started their 36-month duty, which was much longer than the average military service and was limited only to working in prisons or other detention facilities.


On 16 December 2020, the government voted in favour of the resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA). South Korea had previously abstained from all seven UNGA moratorium resolutions.

  1. South Korea: New anti-discrimination bill offers hope and safety to many (News story, 16 July)
South Korea Newsroom

February 18, 2016 • Report

Amnesty International State of the World 2015-2016

International protection of human rights is in danger of unravelling as short-term national self-interest and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights, warned Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. “Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

February 25, 2015 • Report

State of the World 2014/2015

This has been a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones. Governments pay lip service to the importance of protecting civilians. And yet the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need. Amnesty International believes that this can and must finally change.

October 19, 2014 • Report

Bitter Harvest: Exploitation and Forced Labor of Migrant Agricultural Workers in South Korea

The South Korean government must end the exploitation and widespread use of forced labour of migrant agricultural workers, Amnesty International said, as it published a new report that reveals how the country’s farming industry is rife with abuse. Bitter Harvest exposes the true face of South Korea’s Employment Permit System (EPS) that directly contributes to the serious exploitation of migrant agricultural workers. The government-run work scheme is designed to provide migrant labour to small and medium-sized enterprises that struggle to hire a sufficient number of national workers.

May 20, 2013 • Report

Annual Report: South Korea 2013

Republic of Korea Head of state Lee Myung-bak Head of government Kim Hwang-sik The National Security Law (NSL) was increasingly and arbitrarily used to curtail freedoms of association and expression. …

November 28, 2012 • Report

The National Security Law: Curtailing Freedom of Expression and Association in the Name of Security in the Republic of Korea

Since 2008, the South Korean authorities have increasingly used vaguely worded clauses of the NSL to arbitrarily target people or organizations perceived to oppose government policies.

June 20, 2011 • Report

Annual Report: South Korea 2011

Head of state: Lee Myung-bak Head of government: Kim Hwang-Sik (replaced Yoon Jeung-hyun Death penalty: abolitionist in practice Population: 48.5 million Life expectancy: 79.8 years Under-5 mortality (m/f): 6/6 per …

March 19, 2011 • Report

Annual Report: South Korea 2010

Head of state Lee Myung-bak (replaced Roh Moo-hyun in February) Head of government Chung Un-chan (replaced Han Seungsoo in September) Death penalty abolitionist in practice Population 48.3 million Life expectancy …

February 10, 2020 • Press Release

Explainer: Seven ways the coronavirus affects human rights

The outbreak of the coronavirus (2019-nCov) that started in the Chinese city of Wuhan (Hubei province) in late 2019 has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). …

December 9, 2019 • Press Release

Generation Z Ranks Climate Change Highest as Vital Issue of our Time in Amnesty International Survey

Climate change leads as one of the most important issues facing the world, according to a major new survey of young people published by Amnesty International today to mark Human Rights Day.

July 11, 2019 • Press Release

Criminalization of Sex Between Men in Military in South Korea Fuels Violence, Abuse and Discrimination

Gay and trans soldiers in South Korea face violence, harassment and pervasive discrimination due to the criminalization of consensual sex between men in the military, Amnesty International said as it released a new report outlining why this unjust law must be abolished.