• Sheet of paper Report

Annual Report: South Korea 2013

May 20, 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. This extended to the internet, where online debate on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) was tightly controlled. Media workers took industrial action in protest against the state's denial of their right to freedom of expression. Workers' rights remained under threat, as long-term labour disputes went unresolved. Migrant workers continued to face discrimination and labour exploitation. There were no executions.



In December, Park Geun-hye was elected as the first woman President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), due to take office in February 2013. In April, elections to the National Assembly saw the Saenuri Party win 152 of 300 seats, while the main opposition Democratic United Party took 127 seats. In August, Hyun Byung-chul was reappointed as Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, without proper consultation with relevant stakeholders, raising questions about its independence and credibility. In October, South Korea's human rights record was assessed under the UN Universal Periodic Review.

Freedom of expression

Law enforcement authorities used vaguely worded clauses of the NSL to detain for questioning and/or charge 41 people. NSL provisions continued to be used to control online debate on North Korea.

  • On 22 February, an appeal court sentenced Kim Myeong-soo to six months in prison suspended for two years, after prosecutors appealed against a not guilty verdict issued in May 2011. Kim Myeong-soo appealed to the Supreme Court against his latest conviction.
  • On 21 November, Park Jeong-geun was sentenced to 10 months in prison suspended for two years for violating the NSL. He had been under investigation since September 2011, when he satirically re-tweeted messages from a banned North Korean website. Although the judgement acknowledged that some of his posts were parody, it stated that overall, his acts were tantamount to “supporting and joining forces with an anti-state entity”.

In some cases, people were denied entry to South Korea in an effort to silence them.

  • In April and October, six staff members from Greenpeace were denied entry at Incheon International Airport. In December, Greenpeace filed a legal challenge against the government over what it called “attempts to prevent anti-nuclear criticism”.

Journalists and media workers

Demanding editorial independence, staff at Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) went on strike in January followed by staff at the Korea Broadcasting System (KBS), the news-only cable-channel YTN, and the news agency Yonhap. Workers at KBS and Yonhap ended their strike in June, but the strike at MBC, the longest in its history, continued until July.

Conscientious objectors

At least 750 conscientious objectors remained in prison as of December.

  • In April, human rights activist Yoo Yun-jong was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment for refusing military conscription.

Freedom of assembly

Protests against the construction of a naval base in Gangjeong village, Jeju island, continued, with many residents and activists facing civil suits and criminal charges. Between July 2009 and August 2012, police arrested 586 demonstrators. Since October, when all-day construction commenced, at least six demonstrators were hospitalized after police tried to forcibly remove them at night. In May, a joint letter written by three UN Special Rapporteurs to the South Korean government expressed serious concerns, citing reports of harassment, intimidation and ill-treatment of peaceful protesters.

Workers' rights

Long-term labour disputes remained unresolved. The authorities continued to impose criminal sanctions, increasingly taking out lawsuits and claiming extensive damages against striking workers and unions.

  • On 20 September, the National Assembly's environment and labour committee conducted a hearing on the long-running Ssangyong Motors' labour dispute in which around 2,600 workers had lost their jobs. In November, three members of the Ssangyong workers' union began a protest from 9m up an electricity pylon near the Ssangyong Motors' plant in Pyongtaek.
  • In July, some 200 employees of the private security company Contactus reportedly threw sharp iron projectiles at and clubbed approximately 150 workers, injuring 34 people. Police did not intervene to protect them. The workers had been holding a sit-in protest at a factory owned by auto parts manufacturer SJM at the Banwol Industrial Complex in Ansan.

Migrants' rights

Undocumented migrant workers continued to be arrested and deported, following crackdowns against them.

  • In November, Suweto, an Indonesian national and undocumented migrant worker, died in hospital from injuries following a fall as he attempted to escape a night-time raid conducted by immigration officials.

In August, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern that in South Korea “migrant workers are subject to discrimination, exploitation and lower or unpaid wages.”

Death penalty

People continued to be sentenced to death; there were no executions. As of December, at least 60 people were under sentence of death. Three bills calling for abolition of the death penalty lapsed following the end of the National Assembly's term. South Korea's last executions took place in December 1997.

Amnesty International visits/reports

  • An Amnesty International delegate visited South Korea in April, June and November.