Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government, prodded by media and civil society groups, generally implemented the law effectively. Nonetheless, officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and there were numerous reports of government corruption. Ruling and opposition politicians alike alleged that the judicial system was used as a political weapon.
Corruption: According to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, the government was in year two of a five-year anticorruption plan, a road map aimed at fighting corruption in both the public and private sector. Commission members included the Ministry of Justice, the Board of Audit and Inspection, the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, and the KNPA, among others. The plan includes establishing a system for avoiding conflicts of interest among public officials, preventing corruption within the military, and curbing corruption in public procurement. The government also operated an anticorruption policy council chaired by President Moon. Since its inception, the council has uncovered 124 cases of corruption involving 519 persons. Of the 124 cases, nine resulted in indictments, 38 were under investigation, and 506 individuals received disciplinary action.
On October 14, Cho Kuk, the Minister of Justice, resigned 35 days after his appointment amid allegations that he and his family used his positions unfairly and, in some cases, fraudulently to gain academic benefits for his daughter and inappropriate returns on investments. On October 24, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Cho’s wife for allegedly destroying evidence and falsifying credentials for her daughter’s medical school application. Prosecutors continued to investigate Cho as of November and barred him from leaving the country.
In February the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency raided Burning Sun, a nightclub, after receiving reports of Gangnam police covering up sexual assaults at the club. The investigation into police corruption resulted in the arrest of a senior police officer for abuse of power for pulling strings for the club’s owners, and the sentencing of another police officer to one year in prison for taking 20 million won ($16,600) in bribes from the club. Critics argued that the focus of police on investigating recreational drug use, as opposed to abuse of power and private and public corruption, highlighted the systematic corruption in the country.
Financial Disclosure: By law public servants above a specified rank, including elected officials, must publicly declare their income and assets, including how they accumulated them. Failure to disclose assets fully is punishable by up to one year in prison and a 10 million won ($8,300) fine.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape; although no specific statute defines spousal rape as illegal, the Supreme Court acknowledged marital rape as illegal. The penalty for rape ranges from a minimum of three years to life imprisonment depending on the specific circumstances. Rape is defined in law as involving the use of violence. The law defines domestic violence as a serious crime and authorizes courts to order offenders to stay away from victims for up to six months. This restraining order may be extended up to two years. Offenders may be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and fined up to seven million won ($5,810) for domestic violence offenses. Noncompliance with domestic violence restraining orders may result in a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a fine of up to 20 million won ($16,600). Authorities may also place convicted offenders on probation or order them to see court-designated counselors.
When there is a danger of domestic violence recurring and an immediate need for protection, the law allows a provisional order to be issued ex officio or at the victim’s request. This may restrict the subject of the order from living in the same home, approaching within 109 yards of the victim, or contacting the victim through telecommunication devices.
The law allows judges or an MOJ committee to sentence repeat sex offenders to “chemical castration,” where sex offenders undergo drug treatment designed to diminish sexual urges. The law was enacted to protect children against an increasing number of reported sex crimes. The ministry reported that one such procedure was conducted between January and July.
Police generally responded promptly and appropriately to reported incidents, and the judicial system effectively enforced the law. Because a rape conviction requires proving that violence was used, and because the country’s defamation laws allow countersuits by alleged perpetrators, rape offenses are underreported and under prosecuted.
In February the Seoul High Court overruled a lower court’s August 2018 acquittal of Ahn Hee-jung, former governor of South Chuncheong. The High Court convicted Ahn on multiple counts of “sexual intercourse by abuse of authority”–in lieu of a rape charge and other charges–and sentenced him to three-and-one-half years’ imprisonment. Ahn’s March 2018 arrest and subsequent trial for raping his former secretary drew nationwide attention to the country’s contentious definition of rape that is based on “means of violence” rather than lack of consent.
Domestic violence remained a significant and underreported problem according to NGOs. According to KNPA statistics, in 2018 248,660 cases of domestic violence were reported, an 11-percent decrease from 2017. Reports of violence among unmarried couples, called “dating violence,” doubled from 2016 (9,364 cases) to 2018 (18,961 cases).
Data from the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office showed that nearly 40 percent of victims of sex crimes were between 21 and 30 years old. Approximately 21 percent of victims were between 16 and 20 years old.
The Commission for the Eradication of Sexual Violence and Digital Sex Crimes seeks to coordinate the provision of countermeasures and promote consultation across ministries. It is composed of 24 members, including the MOGEF minister, vice ministers of relevant ministries, and private sector experts. The government also established gender equality positions in eight ministries to place greater emphasis on these issues.
The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office revised its investigation manual on sexual violence to delay investigating “false accusation” charges until it first reaches a decision on whether a sexual assault has actually taken place.
In June police arrested a man after he beat his foreign-born wife for three hours in front of their two-year-old child. A video clip of the assault was widely viewed on the internet, sparking a national debate about foreign brides and rural municipal governments offering subsidies (intended to stem rural population decline) to bring them to the country. An NGO, however, argued that the subsidies amounted to “wife buying” and that the brides were vulnerable to human rights abuses, “often [taking on] the role of a housekeeper and a sexual object.” The fact that it was on average 3.9 days from when the couple first met to when they were legally married, and that the average age difference between bride and groom was 18.4 years were cited to support this view. According to a survey by the NHRCK, 42 percent of foreign-born brides have experienced domestic violence and 68 percent had experienced unwanted sexual advances. Domestic violence among native South Korean couples is high in general but probably somewhat lower than among mixed couples.
In August, in response to violence against migrant brides, the MOJ announced new regulatory measures to prevent abuses. These included a “one strike” policy that prevented a person convicted of domestic violence from petitioning for a visa for a foreign bride. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was concerned that the addition of a “right to request investigation” policy might make foreign spouses more vulnerable. The policy allows the South Korean spouse to petition immigration authorities directly to investigate the foreign spouse in the event of separation. The IOM feared this would exacerbate the already disproportionate power imbalance in these relationships.
In March 2018, in response to the #MeToo movement, MOGEF created the Special Center for Reporting Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault. The ministry funded 170 counseling centers (called “sunflower centers”) nationwide for victims of sexual violence, providing counseling, medical care and therapy, caseworkers, and legal assistance. There were 241,343 reported cases of sexual violence in 2018 (an increase of 33.7 percent since 2017), according to Statistics Korea, a government agency. According to NGOs, sunflower centers generally provided adequate support to female victims of sexual assault, but male victims struggled to find help.
In July the government formally closed the Reconciliation and Healing foundation, established with a one billion yen ($9.1 million) contribution from the Japanese government under a 2015 bilateral agreement to provide support to former comfort women; no decision was made on how to use unspent funds.
Sexual Harassment: The law obligates companies and organizations to take preventive measures against sexual harassment. Under antibullying laws introduced in July, in certain cases failure to take appropriate action may result in fines or jail time. The government generally enforced the law effectively. The KNPA classifies sexual harassment as “indecent acts by compulsion.”
Sexual harassment was a significant social problem, and there were numerous cases of sexual harassment reported in media throughout the year.
In February a female student at Seoul National University accused a professor of sexual harassment. She said that the professor gave her unwanted shoulder massages and played with her hair while she slept on a bus, lifted up her skirt and touched her leg when she would not show him a scar on her inner thigh, and forced her to drink significant amounts of alcohol. She submitted her complaints to the university’s Human Rights Center, along with complaints from 17 other students. The center suspended the professor for three months. The student called the decision “absurd” and urged the school to terminate him, but the school declined.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights under the constitution as men. In January, President Moon described the gender gap as a “shameful reality” and pledged to address it. Moon has generally kept his pledge from the beginning of his term that 30 percent of his cabinet nominations would be women. Women hold 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly. In line with the law, which states that women must hold 50 percent of parties’ proportionally allocated representative seats in the National Assembly, 24 of the 47 proportional representatives were women as of August. The law provides for equal pay for equal work, but the gender pay gap was 36.5 percent in 2018, an increase of 2 percent from the previous year.
Birth Registration: Citizenship requires one parent be a citizen at the time of birth. Authorities also grant citizenship in circumstances where parentage is unclear or if the child would otherwise be stateless. The law requires that all children be registered in family registries and prohibits adoption of children for the first week after birth.
Child Abuse: The law criminalizes serious injury and repeated abuse of children, and provides prison terms of between five years and life.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare reported a 6.6-percent increase in reported child abuse cases from 2017 to 2018, attributed in part to increased public awareness and expanded child welfare reporting requirements.
The ministry required human rights training for the 1,095 childcare workers associated with their DreamStart program, a program that provides educational, health, and developmental services for disadvantaged children and their families.
In May a mother in Seoul reported child abuse to police after finding bruises on her two children after they returned from a daycare center. Police were unable to find evidence because the daycare center’s closed-circuit television (CCTV) storage device was not functioning. By law daycare centers are required to have working CCTV equipment and keep video recordings for at least 60 days. The president of the Korea Child Abuse Prevention Association said daycare directors often delete CCTV footage, opting to pay a fine in lieu of facing legal repercussions for child abuse. Parents also faced difficulties obtaining CCTV footage because privacy law may expose the parents to legal reprisals. If a video recording contains threatening words towards the child, the parent may use it as evidence of abuse; however, if the recording contains a conversation between two teachers, for example, the parent could face charges for violating the Protection of Communications Secrets Act that protects private conversations.
Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for men and women to marry is 18. There were no reported cases of forced marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 13. It is illegal to deceive or pressure anyone younger than 19 into having sexual intercourse. In July a law went into effect penalizing adults who have sexual intercourse with teenagers between ages 13 and 16 by taking advantage of mental, physical, or financial difficulties, regardless of whether the minor consented. The penalty for rape of a minor younger than age 13 ranges from 10 years to life in prison; the penalty for rape of a minor age 13 to under 19 is five years’ to life imprisonment. Other penalties include electronic monitoring of offenders, public release of their personal information, and reversible hormone treatment. The law prohibits the commercialization of child pornography. Offenders convicted of producing or possessing child pornography materials for the purpose of selling, leasing, or distributing for profit are subject to a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. In addition anyone who possesses child pornography may be fined up to 20 million won ($16,600).
During the year, the criminal appeals court of the Seoul Central District Court came under fire for sentencing the operator of a dark-web child pornography website, Son Jong-woo, to only 18 months in prison. In October authorities from 38 countries arrested more than 330 users of the website, including 223 South Koreans. In March 2018 the trial court suspended the 18-month sentence, saying Son had “acknowledged his crime and reflected on his wrongdoing.” The appeals court overruled the trial court suspension, calling it too light and reinstated the sentence of 18 months’ imprisonment. These decisions highlighted the light sentences, a fine or suspended sentence, typically given to those convicted of viewing child pornography. For example, in January courts ordered a defendant to pay a fine of three million won ($2,490) for downloading child pornography 968 times during a 10-month period. The court stated that it “took into consideration the fact that it was a first-time offense and that the defendant was sorry for what he had done.”
Children, especially runaway girls, were vulnerable to sex trafficking, including through online recruitment.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish community numbered approximately 1,000 individuals, almost all expatriates. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities and sets penalties for deliberate discrimination of up to three years in prison and a fine of 30 million won ($24,900). The law covering rights and support for persons with developmental disabilities created a special task force of prosecutors and police trained to work with persons with disabilities and their families in police investigations.
The government applied law and implemented programs to facilitate access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. Many establishments, however, continued to disregard the laws, opting to pay fines rather than incurring expenses to make structural adjustments. The Research Institute for Differently Abled Person’s Rights Korea reported that individuals with intellectual disabilities did not receive proper education; employment rates of adults with disabilities were low; and public support for family care was inadequate.
Many local government ordinances and regulations directly discriminate against persons with disabilities, especially those with intellectual and mental disabilities, according to media reports and NGOs. Seongnam City rejected a man’s repeated requests from 2018 through June 2019 to use taxis designated for persons with disabilities because he did not use a wheelchair. The central government classified the man–who has Parkinson’s disease–as having only a grade three disability. The city stated it only allowed those with grades one and two disabilities, mentally handicapped grade three disabilities, and those in wheelchairs to use the taxi service. The NHRCK recommended the city allow the man to use the accessible taxi service until other means of transportation could be prepared, but the city refused.
The central government subsequently amended the Act on the Prohibition of Discrimination against Disabled Persons, abolishing the previously used grading system that labeled persons with disabilities on a one-to-six scale based on “medical disability” to determine eligibility for social welfare benefits. The revised law sorts persons with disabilities into two classes: “severely disabled” and “not severely disabled.” The amended law reclassified persons with disabilities formerly graded one through three into the severely disabled classification; grades four to six were reclassified as not severe. All persons with disabilities are able to receive “activity support services,” a welfare service previously only available to grades one to three that helps persons who face difficulty in daily or social activities. Any person with “severe walking disabilities” may use wheelchair-accessible taxis regardless of whether the person uses a wheelchair. Nevertheless, Seongnam City continued to deny the man’s request to use the wheelchair taxi because the city’s ordinances lagged behind the revised law. The city government stated, “The man can call the taxi for the disabled in November when the city ordinance will change.”
The Ministry of Health and Welfare continued to implement a comprehensive set of policies that included encouraging provision of greater access for persons with disabilities to public and private buildings and facilities; part-time employment opportunities for persons with disabilities; and introduction of a long-term care system.
In 2018, the government operated rehabilitation hospitals in six regions and a national rehabilitation research center to increase employment opportunities and access for persons with disabilities.
The government provided a pension system for registered adults and children with disabilities, an allowance for children with disabilities younger than age 18 in households with an income below or near the National Basic Livelihood Security Standard, and a disability allowance for low-income persons age 18 and older with mild disabilities.
Children with disabilities had access to a separate system of public special education schools for children ages three to 17. All public and private schools, child-care centers, educational facilities, and training institutions were required to provide equipment and other resources to accommodate students with disabilities.
As of July 2018, more than 2.3 million foreigners (including an estimated 330,000 undocumented migrants) lived in the country, which otherwise had a racially homogeneous population of approximately 51.4 million. The country lacks a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. In October, President Moon met with religious leaders and called for them to support the comprehensive antidiscrimination law. The National Assembly has been reluctant to take up the issue due to the outspoken opposition from powerful conservative Christian groups who wish to block the bill because of the LGBTI rights it would afford.
Societal discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities was common but underreported. A large majority of immigrants and naturalized citizens were female spouses, and they were reportedly often the victim of domestic violence. The NHRCK stated most of the foreign worker cases involved enforced eviction or mistreatment in detention centers when detained on charges of violating immigration laws.
Some children of immigrants suffered from discrimination and lack of access to social resources. Some children of non-Korean ethnicity or multiple ethnicities also experienced bullying because of their physical appearance.
In response to the steady growth of ethnic minorities, due largely to the increasing number of migrant workers and foreign brides, the Ministries of Gender Equality and Family and of Employment and Labor implemented programs to promote cultural diversity and assist foreign workers, spouses, and multicultural families to adjust to living in the country.
The law that established the NHRCK prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and authorizes the NHRCK to review cases of such discrimination, but the law does not specify discrimination based on gender identity. The Military Criminal Act’s “disgraceful conduct” clause criminalizes consensual sodomy between men in the military with up to two years’ imprisonment if convicted. In 2016 the Constitutional Court ruled the clause constitutional.
NGOs noted the Military Service Act prohibiting homosexual sex led to abuse of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) soldiers. According to the MHRC, as of August at least three new cases were prosecuted under the Military Criminal Act’s “disgraceful conduct” clause. The MHRC stated the navy sought out LGBTI service members under the pretext of counseling and in at least one case interrogated one person within earshot of other service members. The MHRC added that investigators asked for detailed accounts of sexual interactions between soldiers and searched soldiers’ cell phones for evidence of homosexual relationships. The navy stated it regretted the leaking of sensitive personal information but held that it has the authority to conduct investigations of disorderly conduct under the Military Criminal Act and Defense Ministry policy. According to Amnesty International, the criminalization of LGBTI relationships in the military has a significant impact on broader societal attitudes as half of the country’s population goes through compulsory military service.
According to polling by the NHRCK, 92 percent of LGBTI were worried about becoming the target of hate crimes. After a number of protestors attacked the parade in 2018, 3,000 police officers were on hand to protect the LGBTI community at the 2019 Seoul Pride Festival. “The presence of embassy staff from around the world meant that the police had to ensure the safety of the event,” according to the BBC.
The law protects the right to confidentiality of persons with HIV/AIDS and prohibits discrimination against them. Local NGOs contended, however, that persons with HIV/AIDS continued to suffer from societal discrimination and social stigma. In January the NHRCK urged a hospital to take corrective action after it refused to conduct a comprehensive medical checkup to an HIV-positive person because the hospital wing that handles checkups lacked the proper protective equipment. After the patient filed a complaint, the hospital stated it had obtained all of the protective equipment and completed the necessary staff training.