• Sheet of paper Report

Annual Report: South Korea 2011

June 20, 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 1,000


The government increasingly used vaguely worded national security, defamation and other laws to harass and suppress its critics. In February, the Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty did not violate the Constitution. In October and November, the Court conducted hearings on whether restrictions on migrant workers' labour mobility, and military conscription without options for conscientious objection, constituted violations of fundamental rights.


Tensions between South and North Korea were exacerbated by several incidents in the West Sea (Yellow Sea) (see North Korea entry). The National Human Rights Commission of Korea was accused of losing independence and authority under its present leadership after failing to speak out or act on some significant human rights issues. Commissioners and experts resigned and new appointments appeared to be politically motivated.

Freedom of expression and association

Vaguely worded clauses of the 1948 National Security Law (NSL, last amended 1997) were increasingly used to silence dissent and arbitrarily prosecute individuals peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. According to the National Police Agency, as of August,106 people were charged and 13 detained under the NSL. By the end of the year, at least seven people were incarcerated for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The authorities continued to use Article 7 (praising or sympathizing with anti-state groups) of the NSL to suppress publication or distribution of material deemed to "benefit" North Korea.

  • In June, prosecutors began investigating staff at the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) NGO under charges of criminal defamation, "obstruction of performance of official duties" and Article 7 of the NSL. The charges were linked to a letter sent by the PSPD to the UN Security Council expressing doubts over South Korea's investigation report on the sinking in March of the naval ship, the Cheonan (see North Korea entry).
  • In September, the Seoul Central District Court ruled in favour of defendant Park Won-soon, activist and director of the Hope Institute. In 2009, the National Intelligence Service sued him for damages of US$176,000 for allegedly defaming the "nation" by stating in an interview that the National Intelligence Service was pressuring corporations not to financially support civil society groups.
  • In December, prosecutors demanded a seven-year sentence under the NSL for Professor Oh Se-chul of the Socialist Workers League of Korea. In August 2008, he and six members of the group were arrested for violating NSL Article 7. Attempts to detain them under the NSL in 2008 had twice been rejected by Seoul Central District Court.
  • In December, the Seoul Central District Court acquitted four producers and one scriptwriter of Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). They had been charged with defaming the former Agriculture Minister and negotiator on US beef imports.

In June 2009, prosecutors accused the MBC staff of distorting facts, deliberately mistranslating and exaggerating the dangers of US beef in an episode of the investigative documentary series PD Notebook, which aired in April 2008. The government blamed the programme for sparking candlelight protests against US beef imports. The Prosecutor's Office appealed the decision, and the case was pending before the Supreme Court. This followed an earlier acquittal of the five by the same court in January, which the Prosecutor's Office also appealed against.

Freedom of assembly

The authorities continued to curb people's right to demonstrate peacefully. A new law, introduced on 1 October in the run-up to the G20 summit, banned demonstrations in "places of security and safety". Riot police, mostly conscript soldiers, were deployed in large numbers prior to the summit. On 7 November, capsaicin liquid, which causes a burning sensation on contact, was used to control one anti-G20 demonstration.

  • In November, seven Filipino activists travelling to Seoul to attend non-governmental preparations for the G20 summit, were barred from entering South Korea and forcibly deported. While detained at Incheon International Airport, immigration officers told them they were on a government blacklist.
  • In November, prosecutors demanded that Park Rae-gun be sentenced to five years and four months' imprisonment and Lee Jong-hoe to four years' imprisonment for "hosting an illegal protest" and "blocking traffic". The protests were calling for justice for those killed in the January 2009 police action against rooftop protests by evicted tenants at a building in the Yongsan district of Seoul. The trial, due in December, was postponed to January 2011.

Conscientious objectors

In November, the Constitutional Court heard oral arguments as they deliberated whether fundamental rights are violated when criminal punishment is imposed on those who, on grounds of conscience, refuse military conscription or reserve force training. They also considered whether failure to provide alternative service options for such conscientious objectors violated their fundamental right to freedom of conscience. As of November, 965 such prisoners of conscience remained in detention.

Migrants' rights

In October, the Constitutional Court heard oral arguments as part of their deliberations on whether it is constitutional to limit job changes for migrant workers under the Employment Permit System. Thousands of migrant workers continued to be deported.

  • In November, Trinh Cong Quan, a 35-year-old undocumented migrant worker from Viet Nam, died after attempting to escape from immigration officers by jumping from the factory building where he was working. Immigration authorities had raided the factory without seeking the employer's permission, as part of a government crackdown on undocumented workers. Trinh Cong Quan had a wife and child in South Korea.

Death penalty

In a five to four ruling, the Constitutional Court in February stated that capital punishment did not violate "human dignity and worth" protected in the Constitution. Three death penalty abolition bills were pending before the National Assembly, one introduced in 2010. Death sentences were imposed, but there were no executions. Sixty-three prisoners were under sentence of death, three of whom were in the process of appeal.