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South Korea

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all citizens have freedom of religion, and that there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life because of religion. Freedoms in the constitution may be restricted by law only when necessary for national security, law and order, or public welfare, and restrictions may not violate the “essential aspect” of the freedom. The constitution states religion and state shall be separate.

According to regulation, a religious group that has property valued at over 300 million won ($260,000) may become a government-recognized religious organization by making public internal regulations defining the group’s purpose and activities, meeting minutes of the group’s first gathering, and a list of executives and employees.

To obtain tax benefits, including exemption of acquisition or registration taxes when purchasing or selling property to be used for religious purposes, organizations must submit to their local government their registration as a religious and nonprofit corporate body, an application for local tax exemption, and a contract showing the acquisition or sale of property. All clergy are taxed on earned yearly income. Clergy are exempt from taxation on education, food, transportation, and childcare expenses. Individual laypersons are eligible for income tax benefits upon submitting receipts of donations made to religious organizations.

The law requires active military service for virtually all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 40 (in the army for 21 months, the navy for 23 months, or the air force for 24 months), followed by reserve duty training. In December the National Assembly amended the law to allow conscientious objectors to fulfill obligatory military service and reserve duties by working as government employees for 36 months at correctional facilities. Those who refuse to fulfill military service or alternative service face up to three years imprisonment. The law is silent regarding soldiers currently on active duty who wish to switch to alternative service due to conscientious objections.

Following military service (or alternative service for conscientious objectors), there is an eight-year reserve duty obligation involving several reserve duty exercises per year. The December law allows those who already completed their military service obligation but subsequently became conscientious objectors to perform their reserve duties in correctional facilities. Previously, these individuals were subject to fines for not participating in mandatory reserve duty exercises. Failure to perform reserve duties or alternative service carries fines and possible imprisonment. The fines vary depending on jurisdiction but typically average 200,000 Korean won ($170) for the first conviction. Fines increase by 100,000 to 300,000 won ($87 to $260) for each subsequent violation. The law puts a ceiling on fines at two million won ($1,700) per conviction. Civilian courts have the option, in lieu of levying fines, to sentence individuals deemed to be habitual offenders to prison terms or suspended prison terms that range from one day to three years.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools. Private schools and religious schools are free to conduct religious activities. Students at these schools may opt out of religious instruction.

The law provides government subsidies for preservation and upkeep of historic cultural properties, including religious sites.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) Religious Affairs Division works with the seven members of the NGO Korea Conference of Religions for Peace (KCRP) – the National Council of Churches of Korea (NCCK), the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions – on interfaith solidarity and is the primary government contact for religious organizations.

The NHRCK’s mandate gives it permission to investigate complaints, issue policy recommendations, train local officials, and conduct public awareness campaigns. The NHRCK can make nonbinding recommendations but does not have authority to implement policies or penalize individuals or agencies that violate human rights.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In December the National Assembly passed a law allowing conscientious objectors to work for 36 months as government employees at correctional facilities in lieu of mandatory military service and reserve duties. President Moon then pardoned 1,879 conscientious objectors who had been barred from becoming government officials because they had been convicted of refusing military service. The new law did not address the question of active duty service members wishing to switch to alternative service on the grounds of conscientious objections.

In December 2018 and again in March the NHRCK said the government’s then-proposed bill did not meet international human rights standards because it did not offer due process to active duty soldiers and reservists who wished to apply for alternative service on the grounds of conscientious objection. The NHRCK did not release a statement after the passage of the law.

The government ceased detaining, charging, or imprisoning conscientious objectors to military service immediately after the Constitutional Court’s decision in June 2018, but prosecutors continued during the year to appeal “not guilty” verdicts, arguing the beliefs of some Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been acquitted were insincere because they played violent video games or did not routinely attend church. According to Watchtower International, in February authorities released from prison the last prisoner detained for conscientious objection; however, 935 conscientious objectors whose trials began before June 2018 were still on trial at year’s end, including 63 who fulfilled the mandatory active duty service but refused to participate in reserve duty.

On July 29, the Suwon District Court found Shin Ok-ju, head pastor of the Grace Road Church, and five other church officials guilty on charges of violence, child abuse, and fraud in connection with a 400-member church-owned compound in Fiji. Former members of the church said they were instructed to beat each other to “drive out evil spirits” and were not free to leave the compound. The court sentenced Shin to six years in prison. A district court spokesperson told media the other five officials received penalties ranging from a suspended sentence to 44 months in prison.

According to media reports, in February a government-subsidized social welfare center dismissed a social worker after the individual refused to study the Bible with the director of the center.

According to the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, a social worker at one of its government-subsidized welfare centers was forced to read a Buddhist prayer and bow 3,000 times in worship at an annual event. The order stated it was taking steps to prevent recurrence.

In January the Supreme Court ruled that Han Ji-man, a Seventh-day Adventist medical student, could take university exams outside Sabbath hours, overturning a lower court ruling. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, when Han began his studies as a first-year medical student, he learned several of his exams were scheduled on Saturday. The Church stated that he filed the lawsuit after speaking with professors and school administrators and after appeals to the NHRCK did not resolve the issue.

Media reported that in October President Moon met with religious leaders – including Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong of Gwangju, Chairman of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Korea and the highest ranking Catholic official in the country – and called for them to support the creation of a proposed comprehensive antidiscrimination law that would specifically include religious affiliation and sexual orientation as protected classes. According to media reports, although the NHRCK, international groups, and many lawmakers in the ruling Democratic Party supported an initiative to create a new law, other parliamentarians, including those in the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), opposed it due to the outspoken objection to LGBTI protections from Christian groups, notably the CCK. The CCK also stated such a law would make the country “a paradise” for Muslims. The NCCK stated it publicly opposed all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. An NCCK representative said, however, it did not directly engage on a comprehensive antidiscrimination bill to avoid division among member churches with varying viewpoints. The Jogye Order of Korea Buddhism lobbied the National Assembly to work towards creating an antidiscrimination law.

In November LKP Representative Ahn Sang-soo proposed a revision to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea Act that would remove the NHRCK’s authority to investigate discrimination based on sexual orientation and would define gender as “biological male and female.” According to media, Ahn said the existing law “legally and actively protects and promotes homosexuality” and discriminates against those who oppose homosexuality on religious or other grounds. Forty members of the 300-seat legislature, predominantly LKP representatives but also members of the Bareunmirae Party and the Democratic Party, signed Ahn’s proposed amendment despite criticism and protests from domestic and international human rights groups.

Immigration officials extended by one year the humanitarian stay permits to 412 Yemeni Muslim asylum seekers who were among a group of approximately 500 who arrived in 2018. Extensions for the remaining Yemenis were pending adjudication by ROK immigration officials at year’s end.

In July NGOs providing services to asylum seekers and human rights attorneys accused immigration officials of fabricating statements made by Yemeni Muslims applying for asylum during the second half of 2018. According to the NGOs, immigration officials attributed statements to the Yemenis that would make it easier to dismiss their applications, such as stating that the applicant came to the country in search of better economic prospects. In other instances, the NGOs said immigration officials used interpreters who did not speak Arabic fluently, if at all. Media reported in July that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) stated three refugee screening officers would face disciplinary action for “rigging” Arabic-speaking refugee interview records as far back as 2017.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor continued to support Muslim laborers by offering Korean language classes and encouraging employers to better accommodate Muslim workers’ prayer schedules and dietary requirements.

The Korean Falun Dafa Association said the Falun Gong-affiliated performance troupe Shen Yun was unsuccessful in reserving public venues in January, February, and July in Seoul for commercial performances, including at the government-affiliated Seoul Arts Center and the Seoul city government-affiliated Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. The association indicated the venues said Shen Yun’s applications were rejected for scheduling and/or artistic reasons, but the group’s representatives stated they believed the venues and their associated government authorities refused these requests to avoid conflict with the Chinese government. The association also said Shen Yun’s application to perform in March at the Busan Cultural Center – affiliated with the Busan city government – was rejected apparently for similar reasons, despite the group’s having performed at the venue on several previous occasions. Local sources inside and outside the government noted the country’s cautious approach toward the Chinese government, especially on sensitive “internal” issues like Falun Gong, and said the government’s caution was reinforced in part by the experience of China’s economic retaliation against the government for allowing the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2017, the economic effects of which, the sources said, were still being felt.

Yonhap News Agency reported that in August the Seoul Immigration Office rejected the refugee application of an Iranian man, claiming his conversion to Catholicism was not sincere and therefore he did not qualify under the law. The father arrived in the country with his then-six-year-old son, Kim Min-hyuk, in 2010 and both converted to Catholicism five years later. Kim received refugee status in 2018. In August the MOJ granted the father a one-year extension to his humanitarian stay permit to allow him to remain in the country with his minor son.

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U.S. Department of State

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