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 77.9 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f) 5/5 per 1,000
Discrimination against migrant workers was widespread and many suffered extremely poor working conditions. Police arrested journalists and protesters who were exercising their right to freedom of expression. Impunity for law enforcement officials using unnecessary or excessive force during protests, evictions and immigration raids continued.
The government-run Employment Permit System (EPS) provided employers with excessive powers over migrants, which increased their vulnerability to unfair dismissal, sexual harassment and forced overtime. Industrial accidents, including fatalities, were disproportionately higher among migrant workers than national workers. Immigration officers were often not in uniform when arresting irregular migrants and failed to present a detention order or to inform detainees of their rights. Several women recruited as singers under the E-6 entertainment scheme (visas for artistic performers) were trafficked for sexual exploitation in US military camp towns. Applicants for EPS, entertainment and foreign language instruction schemes, were required to disclose their HIV status. Foreigners who tested positive were subjected to deportation.
In November, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) recommended strengthening the monitoring of E-6 visas; mandatory training of law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges on anti-trafficking legislation; and ensuring an effective complaint mechanism for migrant workers regardless of their immigration status. The CESCR also stated that in the current economic climate it was unreasonable for the EPS to stipulate that migrant workers must find employment within three months of leaving a job or lose their legal status. It further recommended that the state uphold the Seoul High Court’s decision to grant legal status to the Migrants’ Trade Union.
In November, in the first conviction involving racist remarks, Incheon District Court fined Park one million won (US$865) for slander against an Indian research professor, Bonojit Hussain. Park was convicted of “personal insult” because no racial discrimination law exists.
Police and security forces
- In January, approximately 40 protesters with incendiary material, including at least 10 evicted tenants, barricaded themselves on a rooftop in Seoul’s Yongsan district to protest against the lack of compensation following their eviction. After 25 hours without negotiations, two squads of anti-terrorist commandos supported by 1,600 riot police raided the building, which ended in the deaths of five protesters and one police officer.
The authorities prosecuted 1,258 civilians for illegal protest during demonstrations in 2008 against US beef imports. No police were prosecuted for using unnecessary or excessive force during the protests despite evidence that some officials had done so.
In September, the Constitutional Court ruled that article 10 of the Assembly and Demonstration Law, prohibiting demonstrations after sunset and before sunrise, violated the spirit of the Constitution which guaranteed freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of expression
- In January, blogger Park Dae-sung or “Minerva” was arrested for violating the Framework Act on Telecommunications after he posted gloomy economic forecasts. He was accused of spreading malicious rumours to destabilize the economy. In April, Park Daesung was acquitted, but the prosecutor’s office appealed.
- In March 2009, four journalists and union activists from Yonhap Television Network (YTN), a 24-hour news channel, were arrested for “interfering with business”. The journalists had been calling for guarantees of editorial independence after the appointment of Ku Bon-hong, formerly an aide to President Lee Myungbak, as YTN president.
- In June, four producers and one writer at the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation were indicted on charges of defaming the former Agriculture Minister and negotiator on US beef imports. Prosecutors accused them of distorting facts, deliberately mistranslating and exaggerating the dangers of US beef in their television programme, PD Notebook, aired in April 2008. The government blamed the programme for sparking the 2008 candlelight protests against US beef imports.
At least 696 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, were in prison for refusing to serve in the military. The average sentence was one and a half years.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions
Eighteen individuals were arrested for offences under vague provisions of the National Security Law (NSL).
Thirty-four people charged under the NSL were prosecuted, resulting in 14 convictions. The trials of the remaining 20 were pending at the end of the year.
In June, the Constitutional Court heard the case of Oh, a death row inmate, who claimed that the death penalty violated human dignity and values under the Constitution. No executions took place. Fifty-seven people remained on death row.
The CESCR expressed deep concern about the independence of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) and its 21 per cent downsize. It recommended allocating adequate human and financial resources, and allowing individuals to file complaints of violations of economic, social and cultural rights directly to the NHRCK.
Refugees and asylum-seekers
Three hundred and twenty-four individuals applied for asylum and 321 applications were pending with the Justice Ministry. A total of 994 applications were rejected, and only 74 individuals were granted refugee status. The CESCR remained concerned that state recognition of asylum-seekers was extremely low. In June, certain asylum-seekers were given the right to work, but delays in implementation left many with no source of livelihood.