Japan

Executive Summary

Japan has a parliamentary government with a constitutional monarchy. On September 16, Yoshihide Suga, the newly elected leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, became prime minister. Upper House elections in 2019, which the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, won with a solid majority, were considered free and fair by international observers.

The National Public Safety Commission, a cabinet-level entity, oversees the National Police Agency, and prefectural public safety commissions have responsibility for local police forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports of abuses committed by security forces.

There were no reports of significant human rights abuses.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

The government continued to deny death row inmates advance information about the date of execution until that day. The government notified their family members of executions after the fact. The government held that this policy spared prisoners the anguish of knowing when they were going to die.

Authorities also regularly hold prisoners condemned to death in solitary confinement until their execution but allowed visits by family, lawyers, and others. The length of such solitary confinement varied from case to case and may extend for several years. Prisoners accused of crimes that could lead to the death penalty were also held in solitary confinement before trial, according to a nongovernmental organization (NGO) source.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions generally met international standards, although some prisons continued to lack adequate medical care and sufficient heating in the winter or cooling in the summer.

Long-term detention of foreign nationals at immigration centers continued to be a concern. More than 40 percent of the more than 1,000 foreign nationals held in immigration facilities have been detained for more than six months, some as long as seven years, giving rise to an increasing number of protests, including hunger strikes, among detainees. Some facilities imposed forceful control of detainees, including women, and failed to protect detainees’ privacy.

Prisoners and detainees generally have no access to telephones, including to communicate with attorneys or family members.

According to experts, some facilities allowed the provisional release of certain detainees in response to concerns about COVID-19. NGOs noted, however, that released individuals were not granted work permits or health insurance. Legal experts reported that some prisoners expressed concern about the lack of information on the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts also raised concerns about inadequate measures to ensure social distancing among detainees at immigration facilities. The Ministry of Justice announced it implemented guidelines to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in prisons and immigration detention centers.

Physical Conditions: Authorities held women separately from men, and juveniles younger than age 20 separately from adults in prisons, other correctional facilities, and immigration facilities.

From April 2018 through March 2019, third-party inspection committees of prisons and immigration detention centers documented inadequate medical care as a major concern. Inspection committees also raised other issues: the need to give prison officers additional human rights education; some unmet special needs for elderly, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) inmates, or those with disabilities; and insufficient heating and cooling supplies. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2019 there were 290 doctors working at correctional institutions, approximately 90 percent of the required staffing level. Inspection committees also noted concerns about protecting detainees’ privacy.

Administration: Most authorities permitted prisoners and immigration detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities and to request investigation of alleged problematic conditions. The president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, however, raised concerns in an August statement that authorities controlled the complaint and inspection process at immigration detention centers. Complainants were required to notify detention officers about complaints. Detention officers were also responsible for scheduling on-site inspections by the inspection committees and determining the length of time for the committees to interview detainees. Authorities provided the results of such investigations to prisoners in a letter offering little detail beyond a final determination.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally allowed prescheduled visits by elected officials, NGOs, members of the press, and international organizations. By law the Justice Ministry appointed members to inspection committees for government-run prisons and immigration detention centers from outside of the national government. The police supervisory authorities, prefectural public safety commissions, appointed members of inspection committees for police detention facilities from outside of the police force. Authorities accepted some recommendations by NGOs in selecting inspection committee members. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations president, however, voiced concern that undisclosed selection criteria and the members themselves impeded nongovernment experts’ ability to evaluate if the selected members were appropriately qualified. Authorities permitted the committees, which include physicians, lawyers, local municipal officials, local citizens, and experts, to interview detainees without the presence of prison officers. Their recommendations generally received serious consideration.

NGOs and the UN Committee against Torture continued to raise concerns about the inspection process. For instance, they cited concerns about the requirement to submit previsit notifications to facility authorities. They also raised concerns about a lack of transparency in the selection of committee members.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. Police officers may stop and question any person who is suspected to have committed or is about to commit a crime, or to possess information on a crime. Civil society organizations continued to urge police to end ethnic profiling and unjustified surveillance of foreigners.

In May police officers of the Shibuya Ward Police Station in Tokyo questioned a Kurdish man with alleged use of force on a street in Shibuya. The man filed a criminal charge with the Tokyo District Court against two Shibuya police station officers for the injury caused by their alleged assault. The Kurdish man also posted online a video clip showing him being questioned by police, which was filmed by another person who was present. The clip contributed to a protest by some 500 persons against national origin and racial discrimination by Shibuya police in early June. In late June, the Kurdish man filed a civil suit with the Tokyo District Court seeking government compensation from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department for mental suffering caused by the violent police questioning.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Authorities apprehended persons openly with warrants based on evidence and issued by a duly authorized official and brought detainees before an independent judiciary. In urgent cases when there is sufficient basis to suspect that suspects committed specific crimes, including a crime punishable by death, the law allows police to arrest the suspects without obtaining warrants beforehand and requires police to seek to obtain warrants immediately after arrest.

The law allows suspects, their families, or representatives to request that the court release an indicted detainee on bail. Bail is not available prior to indictment. NGOs and legal experts stated bail was very difficult to obtain without a confession. Authorities tended to restrict access to defense counsel for detainees who did not confess. Other elements of the arrest and pretrial detention practices (see below) also tended to encourage confessions. The Public Prosecutors Office reported that in 2019 approximately 67 percent of all criminal suspects who were referred to prosecutors by police did not face indictment. Prosecutors indicted the remaining approximately 33 percent were convicted. The Justice Ministry reported in January that prosecutors indicted suspects only when convictions were highly likely. In most of these cases, the suspects had confessed.

Suspects in pretrial detention are legally required to face interrogation. Police guidelines limit interrogations to a maximum of eight hours a day and prohibit overnight interrogations. Pre-indictment detainees have access to counsel, including at least one consultation with a court-appointed attorney, if required; counsel, however, is not allowed to be present during interrogations.

The law allows police to prohibit suspects from meeting with persons other than counsel (and a consular officer in the case of foreign detainees) if there is probable cause to believe that the suspect may flee or conceal or destroy evidence (see “Pretrial Detention” below). Many suspects, including most charged with drug offenses, were subject to this restriction before indictment, although some were permitted visits from family members in the presence of a detention officer. There is no legal connection between the type of offense and the length of time authorities may deny a suspect visits by family or others. Those held for organized crime or on charges involving other criminals, however, tended to be denied such visits because prosecutors worried that communications with family or others could interfere with investigations.

Police and prosecutors must record the entire interrogation process in cases involving crimes punishable by death or imprisonment for an indefinite period, or punishable by imprisonment for one year or more and in which a victim has died because of an intentional criminal act, or that follow investigations and arrests begun by prosecutors. In such cases, a suspect’s statements to police and prosecutors during an interrogation are in principle inadmissible without a recording. According to legal experts, this is intended to prevent forced confessions and false charges. Police are also required to make best efforts to record the interrogation process when suspects have a mental disability. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations acknowledged the positive effects of these recording practices but noted that interrogations are video recorded in only 3 percent of the country’s criminal cases. Legal experts therefore continued to express concerns about forced confessions, especially in cases involving white-collar crimes.

Pretrial Detention: Authorities routinely held suspects in police-operated detention centers for an initial 72 hours prior to indictment although, by law, such detention is allowed only when there is probable cause to suspect that a person has committed a crime and is likely to conceal or destroy evidence or flee. After interviewing a suspect at the end of the initial 72-hour period, a judge may extend pre-indictment custody for up to two consecutive 10-day periods. Prosecutors routinely sought and received such extensions. Prosecutors may also apply for an additional five-day extension in exceptional cases, such as insurrection, foreign aggression, or violent public assembly.

NGOs and legal experts reported the practice of detaining suspects in pre-indictment detention or daiyou kangoku (substitute prison) continued. Because judges customarily granted prosecutors’ requests for extensions, pre-indictment detention usually lasts for 23 days for nearly all suspects, including foreigners. Moreover, the 23-day detention period may be applied on a per charge basis, so individuals facing multiple charges may be held far longer. NGOs and foreign observers continued to report that for persons in daiyou kangoku, access to persons other than their attorneys was routinely denied.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants are legally presumed innocent until proven guilty, but NGOs and lawyers continued to suggest that this was not the case because of the pressure on suspects to confess prior to trial. Foreign suspects with time-limited visas often confessed in exchange for a suspended sentence in order to close the case before their visas, which are not extended for trial, expire.

Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges against them. Each charged individual has the right to a trial without undue delay (although observers noted that trials could be delayed indefinitely for mentally ill prisoners); to access to defense counsel, including an attorney provided at public expense if indigent; and to cross-examine witnesses. There is a lay judge (jury) system for serious criminal cases. Defendants may not be compelled to testify against themselves. Authorities provided free interpretation services to foreign defendants in criminal cases. Foreign defendants in civil cases must pay for interpretation, although a judge may order the plaintiff to pay the charges in accordance with a court’s final decision.

Defendants have the right to appoint their own counsel to prepare a defense, present evidence, and appeal. The court may assist defendants in finding an attorney through a bar association. Defendants may request a court-appointed attorney at state expense if they are unable to afford one.

Trial procedures favor the prosecution. Observers said a prohibition against defense counsel’s use of electronic recording devices during interviews with clients undermined counsel effectiveness. The law also does not require full disclosure by prosecutors unless the defending attorney satisfies difficult disclosure procedure conditions, which could lead to the suppression of material favorable to the defense.

Several defense counsel and defendants called on judges to allow them to take off face masks or use an alternative COVID-19 preventive measure in trials, arguing that facial expressions affect how judges assess testimony and that covering faces could cause prejudice. They also expressed concern that face coverings could make it psychologically easier for hostile witnesses to give intentionally baseless testimony against defendants. In June a chief judge at the Tokyo Regional Court allowed a defendant to testify with a transparent face shield in lieu of a mask at the request of the defense counsel.

NGOs expressed concern about the retrial process for inmates on death row because execution is not stayed for a pending petition of retrial, which the Japan Federation of Bar Associations said calls into question the validity of executions.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters. There are both administrative and judicial remedies for alleged wrongs. Individuals may file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation with domestic courts.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these freedoms. The independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to sustain freedom of expression.

Freedom of Speech: There is a hate speech law designed to eliminate hate speech against persons originating from outside the country by developing government consultation systems and promoting government awareness efforts. The law, however, neither penalizes nor prohibits hate speech, so as not to impede freedom of speech. Legal experts acknowledged a continued decrease in hate speech at demonstrations since the law came into effect. In contrast hate speech increased in propaganda, election campaigning, and online, while crimes targeting members of specific ethnicities also continued, according to experts. They called on the government to implement more effective deterrent measures and conduct a survey on hate speech incidents. The government has not conducted such a survey since 2016.

According to legal experts, hate speech and hate crimes against ethnic Koreans, especially against Korean women and students, were numerous, but there were also incidents directed at other racial and ethnic minorities. Legal experts pointed out that hate speech against Chinese and Ainu also increased after the COVID-19 outbreak and the opening of the government-run National Ainu Museum in July, respectively.

As of October, three local governments had ordinances to prevent hate speech–Osaka City, Tokyo Metropolitan, and Kawasaki City. In January a public center for exchange programs with foreign nationals run by the city of Kawasaki received letters threatening the genocide of ethnic Koreans in Japan. This came after the city government became the first municipality to pass an ordinance with a penalty (a fine) for repeat offenders of hate speech in public places. In July, Kawasaki authorities arrested a suspect for violating the ordinance. Moreover, the Kawasaki city government requested in October that Twitter delete two messages the city identified as hate speech against an ethnic Korean woman. This was the first such request the city submitted to a social media company since the ordinance went into effect.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

While no such cases have ever been pursued, the law enables the government to prosecute those who publish or disclose government information that is a specially designated secret. Those convicted face up to five years’ imprisonment with work and a substantial fine.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Domestic and international observers continued to express concerns that the system of kisha (reporter) clubs attached to government agencies may encourage censorship. These clubs are established in a variety of organizations, including ministries, and may block nonmembers, including freelance and foreign reporters, from covering the organization.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal as well as civil offense. The law does not accept the truthfulness of a statement in itself as a defense. There is no evidence the government abused these laws to restrict public discussion during the year.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. In March the Ministry of Justice reported that the number of human rights violations via the internet increased by 3.9 percent in 2019.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no reported incidents of governmental restriction of academic freedom or cultural events.

Using updated education guidelines, the Ministry of Education continues to screen and approve textbooks. As has been the case in the past, the approval process for history textbooks, particularly its treatment of the country’s 20th century colonial and military history, continued to be a subject of controversy.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except for travel restrictions implemented by the government from and to the country as COVID-19 infection prevention measures.

In-country Movement: In an effort to prevent COVID-19 infections, the government requested individuals refrain from interprefectural travel for certain periods during the year, but such requests did not carry the force of law.

Foreign Travel: The government’s COVID-19 infection prevention measures restricted entry to the country by all foreign nationals, including re-entry by residents, from April to September 1. Citizens were not subject to foreign travel restrictions.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The government generally provided adequate shelter and other protective services in the aftermath of natural disasters in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. As of January, 709 persons were living in temporary housing as a result of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant disaster in the northeastern part of the country.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection for and assistance to refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs and civil society groups expressed concern about the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum-seekers and conditions in detention facilities. Legal experts and UNHCR noted that lengthy detention led to detainee protests, including by hunger strikes, generally intended to create a health concern that would warrant medical release. According a March report by the Immigration Services Agency, authorities temporarily released some detainees from immigration facilities when they refused to eat and refused medical intervention. Legal experts reported that as of September, 198 detainees engaged in hunger strikes in immigration facilities around the nation to protest their detention.

In August the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (Working Group) concluded that the government’s detention of an Iranian and a Kurdish applicant for refugee status for a cumulative total of nearly five years–until April and June–was “arbitrary.” Although the government argued the detention was in accordance with domestic law, the Working Group maintained the detentions lacked necessity and reasonable grounds.

In June an expert panel appointed by the justice minister to address lengthy detentions and poor conditions in immigration facilities submitted recommendations that took into account recommendations from the UN Working Group and Japan Federation of Bar Associations. Persons under deportation order had the right to refuse deportation and most did, often because of fear of returning home or because they had family in the country. According to Justice Ministry statistics released in June, in 2019 a substantial majority of those under deportation orders refused deportation. Of those who refused deportation, 60 percent in 2019 were in the process of applying for refugee status. By law the government may not deport those who are subject to deportation orders while their refugee applications are pending.

In October the president of the Federation of Bar Associations urged the government to respond seriously to the Working Group’s conclusions and amend the immigration law accordingly. The same month, however, the justice minister commented publicly that the prolonged detention issue would end if those who were subject to deportation orders accepted deportation.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status. The country’s refugee screening process was, however, strict; in 2019 the government granted 44 applicants refugee status out of 10,375 applications and appeals (vice 42 out of 10,493 in 2018). NGOs and UNHCR expressed concern about the low rate of approval. Civil society and legal groups expressed concern about the restrictive screening procedures that led applicants to voluntarily withdraw their applications and accept deportation, specifically claiming that the government’s interpretation of “fear of persecution” used when adjudicating refugee claims was overly restrictive. Civil society groups reported that it takes an average of three years for an applicant to be recognized as a refugee, and some cases involving multiple appeals have lasted 10 years.

Immigration authorities administered the first round of hearings on whether to grant refugee status. Refugee and asylum applicants were not allowed to have lawyers participate in the first round of hearings, except for applicants in vulnerable positions, including minors age 15 or younger who have no guardians and applicants with disabilities, who may ask for approval for lawyers to participate in their first round of hearings. Yet legal experts reported there had been only one case where the government allowed the participation of a lawyer in the first hearing.

Immigration authorities also conducted hearings to review complaints from applicants about problems with the process.

A panel, the Refugee Examination Counselors, appointed by the justice minister from outside (by law) the ministry, conducted second hearings to review appeals from persons denied refugee status at their first hearing. All persons appearing before the counselors had the right to an attorney. The counselors included university professors, former prosecutors, lawyers, former diplomats, and NGO representatives, according to the Justice Ministry. The minister is obliged to hear, but not to accept, the opinions of the counselors. Legal experts questioned whether the review system delivered fair judgements, citing Justice Ministry statistics showing it granted refugee status to only one of the 8,291 applicants who filed appeals in 2019.

As government-funded legal support was not available for most refugee and asylum-seekers requesting it, the Federation of Bar Associations continued to fund a program that provided free legal assistance to applicants who could not afford it.

While refugee applicants arriving in the country illegally or without a visa allowing for residency are subject to detention, applicants for refugee status increasingly had valid visas before they submitted their asylum applications. The Justice Ministry announced that in 2019, approximately 97 percent (10,073 of the 10,375 applicants) had legitimate visas, including as temporary visitors or temporary workers.

In 2019 the government granted humanitarian-based permission to stay to 37 applicants who were not given refugee status, including to some applicants who were not legally in the country. The remaining applicants were potentially subject to deportation but could re-apply for refugee status. According to the Justice Ministry, in 2019 there were 8,967 voluntary repatriations and 516 involuntary deportations. As of December 2019, 2,217 persons subject to deportation orders were allowed to live outside of immigration facilities; 942 persons under deportation orders were held in immigration detention facilities. There is no legal limit to the potential length of detention. In response to COVID-19, more detainees were permitted to stay outside the facilities to prevent the spread of infections, the justice minister stated.

In addition to the regular asylum application system, the government may accept refugees under a third-country refugee resettlement program. In April the government increased the cap on refugees accepted under this program from 30 to 60, which NGOs applauded, while continuing to voice concern about the low overall numbers of refugees accepted. COVID-19 related concerns delayed implementing the increase. Approximately 300 Rohingya Muslims were also living in the country under special stay permits on humanitarian grounds or temporary stay visas on the basis of ethnic and religious persecution in Burma. Fewer than 20 Rohingya have been granted refugee status; approximately the same number of Rohingya asylum-seekers are out of detention centers on temporary release but are not permitted to work and could be redetained.

The Ministry of Justice, the Federation of Bar Associations, and the NGO Forum for Refugees Japan continued to cooperate to implement the Alternatives to Detention project to provide accommodations, advice on living in the country, and legal services for individuals who arrived at Narita, Haneda, Chubu, and Kansai airports; received temporary landing or provisional stay permission; and sought refugee status. Government-subsidized civil organizations and donations fund the project. NGOs expressed concern about a lack of government statistics on the number of refugee applicants arriving at air and seaports since July 2018.

Freedom of Movement: Asylum applicants granted a residency permit may settle anywhere and travel in the country freely with conditions, including reporting their residence to authorities. Asylum-seekers in detention and under deportation orders may be granted provisional release from detention for illness, if the applicant was a trafficking victim, or in other circumstances as determined on an ad hoc basis by the Ministry of Justice. Provisional release does not provide a work permit and has several restrictions, including an obligation to appear monthly at the Immigration Bureau, report in advance any travel outside the prefecture in which she or he resides, and report any change of residence to the Immigration Office. The system of provisional release also requires a deposit that may amount to three million yen ($28,000) depending on the individual case. Arefugee or asylum-seekerwho does not follow the conditions may be returned to detention and the deposit is subject to confiscation. Lawyers noted that in recent cases those found working illegally were punished with a minimum of three years’ detention.

Persons granted refugee status may travel freely within the country, as well as abroad, contingent upon meeting certain requirements.

Employment: Applicants who have a valid visa at the time of their asylum application and whom authorities have determined may be recognized as refugees may apply for work permits within two months of, or eight months after, the date they were determined to qualify potentially as refugees. An individual must apply for permission to engage in income-earning activities before the visas expire. Individuals must have a work permit in order to work. In the interim before approval, the Refugee Assistance Headquarters, a section of the government-funded Foundation for the Welfare and Education of the Asian People, provided small stipends to some applicants who faced financial difficulties.

Persons granted refugee status have full employment rights.

Access to Basic Services: Excepting those who met right-to-work conditions, applicants for refugee status received limited social welfare benefits, not including health care. This status rendered them dependent on overcrowded government-funded shelters, illegal employment, government financial support, or NGO assistance.

Persons granted refugee status faced the same discrimination patterns often seen by other foreigners: reduced access to housing, education, and employment.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to 37 individuals in 2019 who may not qualify as refugees. Of the 37, 27 were married to Japanese citizens or their children were citizens. The remaining 10 were granted permission to stay on the basis of situations in their home countries, including seven individuals from Syria. They may live and work in the community.

g. Stateless Persons

By law a stateless person age 20 or older is qualified for naturalization when she or he has met certain criteria, including having lived in the country for at least five consecutive years, good conduct, and financial stability.

In January the Tokyo High Court ruled a deportation order for a stateless man who had been denied refugee status was invalid, adding, “it was obvious that the man would have had nowhere to go on this earth.” Further, the court acknowledged that he would not be able to build a life in his home country, Georgia, and declared the order was “defective.”

Japan-born children of ethnic Koreans who had their Japanese citizenship revoked following the end of Japanese colonial rule in Korea at the end of World War II are deemed foreign nationals. They do not have suffrage rights and may not hold positions in government service. Those who did not pledge allegiance to either South or North Korea following the division of the Korean Peninsula fall under the special category of “citizens of the Korean Peninsula (Korea or Chosen).” These Koreans, regarded as de facto stateless by legal experts, may opt to claim South Korean citizenship or to pursue Japanese citizenship. Although they hold no passports, these ethnic Koreans may travel overseas with temporary travel documents issued by the government.

Children born to Rohingya living in the country remain effectively stateless.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: A snap election for the Lower House of the Diet called by the government in 2017 was free and fair according to international observers. Upper House elections in July 2019, in which the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, won a solid majority, also were considered free and fair.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women voted at rates equal to or higher than men. In all national elections since the late 1960s, women have made up a majority of voters, according to data by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. Women, however, have not been elected to any level of office at rates reflecting this.

The law calls on political parties to make their best efforts to have equal numbers of male and female candidates on the ballot in national and local elections. Women held 46 of 465 seats in the Diet’s Lower House, down one from the previous year, and continued to hold 56 of 245 seats in the Upper House (unchanged from the previous year). Women held two of 21 seats in the cabinet; none of the four senior posts in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was held by a woman. At the end of 2019, of 2,668 assembly members across the 47 prefectures, 303 were women. There were two female governors in the 47 prefectures and 35 of 1,740 mayors were women.

Very few individuals with disabilities run as candidates. In the July 2019 election, two wheelchair-bound candidates were elected to the Diet, becoming the first lawmakers in wheelchairs elected since 2005.

Some ethnic minority group members of mixed heritage served in the Diet, but their numbers were difficult to ascertain because they did not self-identify.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were documented cases of corruption by officials.

Independent academic experts stated that ties among politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspersons were close, and corruption remained a concern. NGOs continued to criticize the practice of retired senior public servants taking high-paying jobs with private firms and government subsidized organizations that relied on government contracts. There were investigations into financial and accounting irregularities involving government officials.

Corruption: In March the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force announced the dismissal of an officer on suspicion of breaking the law by leaking classified information and running a prostitution business for the previous 10 years. He later confessed, stating that he wanted extra income.

In June spouses Katsuyuki Kawai, a member of the House of Representatives, and Anri Kawai, a member of the House of Councilors, were arrested and indicted on charges of paying cash for votes in Anri Kawai’s election. They pled not guilty but resigned from the Liberal Democratic Party while announcing their intention to retain their Diet seats. In June an aide to Anri Kawai was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for illegally paying election campaigners, a ruling that was upheld on appeal.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires members of the Diet to disclose publicly their income and assets (except for ordinary savings), including ownership of real estate, securities, and means of transportation. Local ordinances require governors of all 47 prefectures, prefectural assembly members, mayors, and assembly members of 20 major cities to disclose their incomes and assets; assembly members of the remaining approximately 1,720 municipalities are not required to do the same. There are no penalties for false disclosure. The law does not apply to unelected officials. Separately, a cabinet code provides that cabinet ministers, senior vice-ministers, and parliamentary vice-ministers publicly disclose their, their spouses’, and their dependent children’s assets.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were usually cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Counseling Office has more than 300 offices across the country. Approximately 14,000 volunteers fielded questions in person, by telephone, or on the internet, and provided confidential consultations. Counselling in 10 foreign languages was available in 50 offices. These consultative offices fielded queries, but they do not have authority to investigate human rights abuses by individuals or public organizations without consent from parties concerned. They provide counsel and mediate, and collaborate with other government agencies, including child consultation centers and police. Municipal governments have human rights offices that deal with a range of human rights problems.

According to the Ministry of Justice, regional legal affairs bureaus nationwide initiated relief procedures in 15,420 cases of human rights violations in 2019. Of those, 1,985 were committed online, and 454 were cases of sexual harassment. In one example publicized by the ministry, a regional legal affairs bureau requested that online video-sharing platform companies remove videos of a preteenage boy after it was contacted by his mother, investigated the case, and found that the videos of the boy were filmed and posted without his or his mother’s knowledge. The bureau recognized posting such videos as a violation of his privacy and defamation of his character. The video-sharing companies removed the videos following the request.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender identity is not prohibited.

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes various forms of rape, regardless of the gender of a victim. The law also criminalizes custodial rape of a minor younger than age 18. The law does not deny the possibility of spousal rape, but no court has ever ruled on such a case, except in situations of marital breakdown (i.e., formal or informal separation, etc.). The law mandates a minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment for rape convictions. Prosecutors must prove that violence or intimidation was involved or that the victim was incapable of resistance. Domestic violence is also a crime for which victims may seek restraining orders. Convicted assault perpetrators face up to two years’ imprisonment or a modest fine. Convicted offenders who caused bodily injury faced up to 15 years’ imprisonment or a modest fine. Protective order violators faced up to one year’s imprisonment or a moderate fine.

Suicide rates among women rose in July and August by 40 percent as compared with the corresponding months of 2019, according to National Police Agency statistics. In October the Japan Suicide Countermeasures Promotion Center, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare to analyze trends in suicides since July, stated that more severe domestic violence, an increased struggle to raise children, and financial difficulty–all due to COVID-19–along with the impact of a series of celebrity suicides in recent months, were potential factors leading to the increase in suicides among women living with one or more persons, unemployed women, and teenage girls.

On October 1, the Cabinet Office upgraded the office for countering violence between men and women in the Ministry of Gender Equality to a division. Minister Seiko Hashimoto and Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato announced the change as an effort to strengthen government efforts to address sexual crimes and violence, including domestic violence. The division plans to enhance counseling services and collaboration with private supporting organizations.

In October the gender equality bureau director general in the Cabinet Office confirmed that government consultation bodies around the nation received 1.6 times more inquiries about domestic violence in May and June than during the same months in 2019. She expressed concern about the increase in the number and degree of severity of domestic violence cases, attributing the change to stress and anxiety about life in the future stemming from COVID-19. As preparedness measures, in April the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau extended hotline services to 24 hours a day and in May launching additional consultation services via social network services in Japanese and 10 foreign languages. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications allowed victims fleeing domestic violence to receive an across-the-board one-time stipend of 100,000 yen ($920) per person as a COVID-19 financial relief measure. NGOs reported, however, that the stringent requirements for the stipend made it difficult for some victims to qualify.

Several acquittals in rape cases in 2019 drew the attention of legislators and the public to the high legal standard and prosecutorial burden in such cases. In March the Nagoya High Court overturned a lower court’s controversial 2019 acquittal of a father accused of raping his 19-year-old daughter. The High Court convicted the father after concluding that she had no option other than to submit and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. The father appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Ministry of Justice launched an expert panel in June to identify potential revisions to criminal legislation on all sexual crimes, as part of the government’s efforts to strengthen measures against sexual crimes and violence. The expert panel includes a survivor of sexual abuse, lawyers, academics, and government officials.

Rape and domestic violence are significantly underreported crimes. Observers attributed women’s reluctance to report rape to a variety of factors, including fear of being blamed, fear of public shaming, a lack of victim support, potential secondary victimization through the police response, and court proceedings that lacked empathy for rape victims.

Victims of abuse by domestic partners, spouses, and former spouses could receive protection at shelters run by either the government or NGOs.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment was generally perceived as a workplace issue after a 2007 amendment to equal employment opportunity law required employers to establish preventive measures against sexual harassment in workplaces. Sexual harassment in the workplace persisted (see section 7.d.).

Sexual harassment also persisted in society. One of the most pervasive examples was men groping women on subway trains. Many major train lines have introduced women-only cars to combat chikan, or groping; however, it continued during the year.

In April, Liberal Democratic Party Lower House members toured a facility for teenage survivors of sexual abuse. During the visit, members of the group were accused of sexist behavior and harassment, including an allegation that the former minister of education, culture, sports, science, and technology placed his hands on an underage girl’s waist. He later apologized for “causing [her] discomfort” but added that he had no memory of putting his hands on her waist. Then prime minister Abe, in his capacity as head of the Liberal Democratic Party, also apologized on the former minister’s behalf.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Women had access to contraception and maternal health services, including skilled attendance during childbirth, prenatal care, and essential obstetric and postpartum care.

The government subsidizes sexual or reproductive health care services for survivors of sexual violence when the survivors seek help from the police or government-designated centers supporting sexual violence survivors located in each prefecture. Services subsidized by the government include medical examinations and emergency contraception.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and generally provides women the same rights as men. The Gender Equality Bureau in the Cabinet Office continued to examine policies and monitor developments.

Despite the law and related policies, NGOs continued to allege that implementation of antidiscrimination measures was insufficient, pointing to discriminatory provisions in the law, unequal treatment of women in the labor market (see section 7.d.), and low representation of women in high-level elected bodies.

NGOs continued to urge the government to allow married couples to choose their own surnames. The postwar constitution provides for equality between men and women, and relevant laws state that a husband and wife may choose either spouse’s surname as the legal surname for both of them. Separate surnames for a married couple, however, are not legal. According to the government, 96 percent of married couples adopt the husband’s family name. Experts cited workplace inconveniences and issues of personal identity that disproportionately affect women as a result of the law.

In what became known as the “potato salad controversy,” there was a widespread outcry over perceived pervasive misogyny when an individual posted on social media about overhearing an elderly man admonishing a woman with an infant who was buying prepared potato salad instead of making it from scratch. The man reportedly chided the woman, suggesting that she was not a good mother for choosing not to spend time and labor to make the potato salad herself. Media speculated that the comment prompted so many responses because many women have had similar experiences. One prominent newspaper posited that misogynistic attitudes among men underpin such comments, adding that the notion that women are inferior is a persistent undercurrent in society.

Children

Birth Registration: The law grants citizenship at birth to: a child of a Japanese father who either is married to the child’s mother or recognizes his paternity; a child of a Japanese mother; or, a child born in the country to parents who are both unknown or are stateless. The law also grants citizenship to a person born in the country with no nationality at the time of birth but who has resided in the country for three consecutive years or more since his or her birth. The law requires registration within 14 days after in-country birth or within three months after birth abroad, and these deadlines were generally met. Individuals were allowed to register births after the deadline but were required to pay a nominal fine.

The law requires individuals to specify whether a child was born in or out of wedlock on the birth registration form. The law presumes that a child born within 300 days of a divorce is the divorced man’s child, resulting in the nonregistration of an unknown number of children.

Child Abuse: Reports of child abuse continued to increase, which NGOs attributed in part to stay-at-home COVID-19 policies. Legislators expressed concern about sexual crimes and violence against children. According to official data, police investigated 1,957 child abuse cases in 2019, a 42 percent increase from the previous year. Of the cases, 1,629 involved physical violence; 243 involved sexual abuse; 50, psychological abuse; and 35, neglect.

Reports of sexual abuse of children by teachers continued. Local education boards around the nation imposed disciplinary actions on 280 public school teachers, the highest number on record, for sexual misconduct with children from April 2018 through March 2019, an increase of 70 from the previous period, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. The ministry dismissed 57 percent of the disciplined teachers from their teaching posts. By law their teaching licenses were invalidated, but they may obtain teaching licenses again after three years. In September a parental group submitted to the ministry approximately 54,000 signatures calling for legislative revisions to prohibit re-issuing teaching licenses to teachers dismissed for sexual misconduct with children.

Known as taibatsu, corporal punishment in sports has been a longstanding concern. In June a report detailed widespread, systemic corporal punishment of child athletes. A law enacted in April established a ban on corporal punishment, which extends to abuse in sports; however, NGOs pointed to broad ignorance of the law among the perpetrators and argued that it does not explicitly state its application to organized sports, undermining its effectiveness. Additionally, government and sports organizations have not taken steps to ensure compliance, and abuse reporting may be limited by requirements to submit claims by post or fax, which are not necessarily available to children.

Children were also subject to human rights violations via the internet. Violations included publishing photographs and videos of elementary school students in public places without their consent. The government requested site operators to remove such images, and many reportedly complied.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law stipulates that to marry, the male partner must be age 18 or older and the female partner 16 or older. A person younger than 20 may not marry without at least one parent’s approval. A law creating gender parity in the legal age to marry, 18 for both sexes, comes into force in 2022.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Child prostitution is illegal, with penalties including prison sentences or moderate fines. Statutory rape laws criminalize sexual intercourse with a girl younger than age 13, notwithstanding her consent. The penalty for statutory rape is a sentence of not less than three years’ imprisonment with mandatory labor. The law was enforced. Additionally, national law and local ordinances address sexual abuse of minors. Possession of child pornography continues to be a crime. The commercialization of child pornography remains illegal with the penalty of imprisonment with labor for not more than three years or a moderate fine. Police continued to crack down on this crime and noted that instances of sexual exploitation via social networking services continued to rise. NGOs continued to express concern that preventive efforts more frequently targeted victims rather than perpetrators.

The continued practice of enjo kosai (compensated dating) and the existence of websites for online dating, social networking, and “delivery health” (a euphemism for call-girl or escort services) facilitated the sex trafficking of children and other commercial sex industries. NGOs reported that unemployment and stay-at-home orders established because of the COVID-19 crisis fueled online sexual exploitation of children. The government’s interagency taskforce to combat child sex trafficking in joshi kosei (or “JK” businesses)–dating services connecting adult men with underage girls–and in forced pornography continued to strengthen its crackdown on such businesses. In 2019 authorities identified 162 of these operations nationwide, up by 18 percent from the previous year. Eight individuals alleged to have been engaged in unspecified criminal activities surrounding the JK business were arrested, down from 69 in 2018. Seven major prefectures have ordinances banning JK businesses, prohibiting girls younger than age 18 from working in “compensated dating services,” or requiring JK business owners to register their employee rosters with local public safety commissions. NGOs helping girls in the JK business reported a link between these activities and the commercial sexual exploitation of children in prostitution.

The country was a site for the production of child pornography and the exploitation of children by traffickers.

No law addresses the unfettered availability of sexually explicit cartoons, comics, and video games, some of which depicted scenes of violent sexual abuse and the rape of children.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

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.

Anti-Semitism

The total Jewish population is approximately 3,000 to 4,000. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

A law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, intellectual, mental, or other disabilities affecting body and mind and bars infringement of their rights and interests on the grounds of disability in the public and private sectors. The law requires the public sector to provide reasonable accommodations and the private sector to make best efforts in employment, education, access to health care, or the provision of other services. The laws do not stipulate remedies for persons with disabilities who experience discriminatory acts, nor do they establish penalties for noncompliance. Advocates reported the COVID-19 outbreak increased unemployment among persons with disabilities; the Ministry of Health reported that from February to June, more than 1,100 persons with disabilities were laid off, an increase of approximately 150 compared with the same period in the previous year (see section 7.d.).

Accessibility laws mandate that construction projects for public-use buildings must include provisions for persons with disabilities. The government may grant low interest loans and tax benefits to operators of hospitals, theaters, hotels, and other public facilities if they upgrade or install features to accommodate persons with disabilities. The government revised a law in May to require accessibility in public elementary and junior high school buildings. Nonetheless, persons with disabilities faced limited access to some public-sector services.

Abuse of persons with disabilities was a serious concern. Persons with disabilities around the country experienced abuse by family members, care-facility employees, and employers. Private surveys indicated discrimination against and sexual abuse of women with disabilities. Legislators expressed concern about sexual crimes and violence, especially against persons with disabilities by their relatives, schoolteachers, sports coaches, or care-facility staff.

NGOs continued to express concern that persons with disabilities tended to be stigmatized and segregated from the general population. Although some schools provided inclusive education, children with disabilities generally attended specialized schools.

Disability rights advocates reported that women with disabilities faced higher unemployment and more abuse and discrimination than men with disabilities, including insufficient access to support, and continued harassment at workplaces. Mental-health-care professionals asserted the government’s efforts to reduce the stigma of mental illness and inform the public that depression and other mental illnesses are treatable and biology based were insufficient.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Members of minority groups experienced varying degrees of societal discrimination.

The law specifically addresses discrimination against Buraku (the descendants of feudal-era outcasts). It obligates national and local governments to study discrimination against Buraku, implement awareness education, and enhance the counseling system.

Buraku advocacy groups continued to report that despite socioeconomic improvements achieved by many Buraku, widespread discrimination persisted in employment, marriage, housing, and property assessment. Although the Buraku label was no longer officially used to identify individuals, the family registry system could be used to identify them and facilitate discriminatory practices. Buraku advocates expressed concern that employers who required family registry information from job applicants for background checks, including many government agencies, might use this information to identify and discriminate against Buraku applicants.

Despite legal safeguards against discrimination, foreign permanent residents in the country and nonethnically Japanese citizens, including many who were born, raised, and educated in the country, were subjected to various forms of entrenched societal discrimination, including restricted access to housing, education, health-care, and employment opportunities. Foreign nationals and “foreign looking” citizens reported they were prohibited entry–sometimes by signs reading “Japanese Only”–to privately owned facilities serving the public, including hotels and restaurants. Legal experts noted that there is no legal prohibition on such restrictions.

There was no indication of increased societal acceptance of ethnic Koreans. Representatives of the ethnic Korean community said hate speech against Koreans in public and on social networking sites persisted. In August the Fukuoka Legal Affairs Bureau recognized a 2019 address by Makoto Sakurai, then chairman of the Association of Residents Who Reject Special Privileges of Zainichi Koreans (known as Zaitokkai), as hate speech. In the address he targeted students heading to a school in Kitakyushu run by the North Korean government’s General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, telling them to “get out of Japan.” Sakurai ran in the July Tokyo gubernatorial election, seeking to abolish welfare for foreigners and placing fifth with 178,784 votes. Experts expressed concern that his campaign speech potentially threatened the safety of minority group members and fueled discrimination against them. Ethnic Koreans who chose not to naturalize faced difficulties in terms of civil and political rights and regularly encountered discrimination at work and in access to housing, education, and other benefits.

In June public broadcaster NHK came under fire, and later apologized, for airing a segment about racism that lacked context and used offensive and insensitive caricatures. The voice used in the narrative was one typically used for ruffians in Japanese animation, and images portrayed black men and women as angry, aggressive, and unkempt, while showing white characters as innocent and well dressed. In addition to issuing an apology, NHK removed the video and aired subsequent programming that more appropriately and effectively addressed diversity issues.

Senior government officials publicly repudiated the harassment of ethnic groups as inciting discrimination and reaffirmed the protection of individual rights for everyone in the country.

Indigenous People

The law recognizes Ainu as indigenous people, prohibits discrimination against them, prohibits the violation of Ainu rights, and protects and promotes their culture. The law requires the national and local governments to take measures to support communities and boost local economies and tourism. The law does not provide for self-determination or other tribal rights, nor does it stipulate rights to education for Ainu.

Ainu continued to face poverty and barriers to education. Seeking to restore traditional practices and rights abolished during the Meiji era, in August a group of Ainu filed a lawsuit seeking an exemption from a ban on commercial salmon fishing in rivers. It was the first such lawsuit by Ainu related to their indigenous rights. The state, however, asserted that because Ainu villages disappeared due to the Meiji-era assimilation policy, there are no tribes with land and salmon-fishing rights.

Although the government does not recognize the Ryukyu (a term that includes residents of Okinawa and portions of Kagoshima Prefecture) as indigenous people, it officially acknowledged their unique culture and history and made efforts to preserve and show respect for those traditions.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law requires transgender persons to be without reproductive capacity, effectively requiring surgical sterilization for most persons, in order to have their gender identity legally recognized. They also must meet additional conditions, including undergoing a psychiatric evaluation and receiving a diagnosis of “gender identity disorder,” a disorder not recognized in the International Classification of Diseases; being unmarried and older than age 20; and not having any children younger than age 20.

No law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and there are no penalties associated with such discrimination. LGBTI advocacy organizations reported instances of discrimination, outing, bullying, harassment, and violence. A letter signed by 96 human rights and LGBTI organizations and sent to the prime minister in April urged the Liberal Democratic Party to introduce legislation to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The parents of a student who fell from a school building in 2015 after his classmates disclosed he was gay appealed the Tokyo District Court’s 2019 dismissal of their civil lawsuit seeking damages from Hitotsubashi University. As of November the case was pending at an appellate court.

In April, two all-women national universities in the country, Ochanomizu University in Tokyo and Nara Women’s University in Nara, started accepting transgender students.

According to a government survey, just more than 10 percent of companies have policies aimed at protecting the rights of sexual minorities. LGBTI rights advocates welcomed an increasing number of municipalities that introduced ordinances to ban discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation and recognized same-sex partnership. The Ministry of Justice received a few inquiries about potential human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity in 2019, providing the inquirers with legal advice.

Stigma surrounding LGBTI persons remained an impediment to self-reporting of discrimination or abuse.

There are two openly LGBTI national legislators, both of whom are members of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

No law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS; nonbinding health ministry guidelines state that firms should not terminate or fail to hire individuals based on their HIV status. Courts have awarded damages to individuals fired from positions due to their HIV status.

Concerns about discrimination against individuals with HIV/AIDS and the stigma associated with the disease, and fear of dismissal, prevented many persons from disclosing their HIV/AIDS status.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Police arrested a series of individuals who abused senior citizens, and the Health Ministry reported rising rates of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of senior citizens, as well as nursing-care negligence by families and nursing-care center employees.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements and protects their rights to strike and bargain collectively.

The law restricts the right of public-sector workers and employees of state-owned enterprises to form and join unions of their choice. Public-sector employees may participate in public-service employee unions, which may negotiate collectively with their employers on wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. The International Labor Organization raised concerns that the amended Local Public Service Act, which entered into force on April 1, could further restrict some public-sector employees’ labor rights. Public-sector employees do not have the right to strike; trade union leaders who incite a strike in the public sector may be dismissed and fined or imprisoned. Firefighting personnel and prison officers are prohibited from organizing and collectively bargaining.

Workers in sectors providing essential services, including electric power generation and transmission, transportation and railways, telecommunications, medical care and public health, and the postal service, must give 10 days’ advance notice to authorities before conducting a strike. Employees involved in providing essential services do not have the right to collective bargaining.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for legal union activities.

The government effectively enforced laws providing for freedom of association, collective bargaining, and legal strikes. Government oversight and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. Collective bargaining was common in the private sector.

In the case of a rights violation, a worker or union may lodge an objection with the Labor Committee, which may issue a relief order requiring action by the employer. If the employer fails to act, a plaintiff may then take the matter to a civil court. If a court upholds a relief order and determines that a violation of that order has occurred, it may impose a fine, imprisonment, or both.

The increasing use of short-term contracts undermined regular employment and frustrated organizing efforts.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law, however, does not expressly define what would constitute forced or compulsory labor, allowing for prosecutorial discretion when pursuing such cases.

In general, however, the government effectively enforced the law, but enforcement was lacking in some sectors, especially those in which foreign workers were commonly employed. Legal penalties for forced labor varied depending on its form, the victim(s), and the law used to prosecute such offenses. Some were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. For example, the law criminalizes forced labor and prescribes penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, but it also allows for moderate fines in lieu of incarceration. NGOs argued that reliance on multiple and overlapping statutes hindered the government’s ability to identify and prosecute trafficking crimes, especially for cases involving forced labor with elements of psychological coercion.

Indications of forced labor persisted in the manufacturing, construction, and shipbuilding sectors, primarily in small- and medium-size enterprises employing foreign nationals through the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). This program allows foreign workers to enter the country and work for up to five years in a de facto guest worker program that many observers assessed to be rife with vulnerabilities to trafficking and other labor abuses.

Workers in the TITP experienced restrictions on freedom of movement and communication with persons outside the program, nonpayment of wages, excessive working hours, high debt to brokers in countries of origin, and retention of identity documents, despite government prohibitions on these practices. For example, some technical interns reportedly paid up to one million yen ($9,200) in their home countries for jobs and were employed under contracts that mandated forfeiture of those funds to agents in their home country if workers attempted to leave, both of which are illegal under the TITP. Workers were also sometimes subjected to “forced savings” that they forfeited by leaving early or being forcibly repatriated.

The Organization for Technical Intern Training oversees the TITP, including conducting on-site inspections of TITP workplaces. The organization maintained its increased workforce, including inspectors, but labor organizations continued to cite concerns that it was understaffed, insufficiently accessible to persons who do not speak Japanese, and ineffective at identifying labor rights violations.

To assist workers in the TITP who became unemployed during the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government allowed them to find employment with other employers and to switch designated job categories.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. Children ages 15 to 18 may perform any job not designated as dangerous or harmful, such as handling heavy objects or cleaning, inspecting, or repairing machinery while in operation. They are also prohibited from working late night shifts. Children ages 13 to 15 years may perform “light labor” only, and children younger than age 13 may work only in the entertainment industry.

The government effectively enforced these laws. Penalties for child labor violations included fines and imprisonment and were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes.

Children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children).

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation but does not explicitly prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, or language.

The law prohibits gender-based discrimination in certain circumstances, including recruitment, promotion, training, and renewal of contracts. It does not address mandatory dress codes. The law imposes some restrictions on women’s employment. The law restricts women from performing certain tasks in underground mining as well as work that requires lifting very heavy objects or spraying 26 specified hazardous materials such as PCB. Additional restrictions apply to pregnant women and those who gave birth within the prior year.

In March, Japan Airlines announced that its dress code, which requires women to wear high heels and skirts, would be relaxed, allowing women to choose footwear that “best fits their needs” and to wear pants. The airline was the first major company to relax its dress code in response to a public campaign.

The government established a program for subcontracting freelance workers to receive 4,100 yen ($38) a day if they were unable to work due to school closures related to COVID-19. The government excluded hostesses and sex industry workers from it, a move criticized by the advocates for such workers. The sex industry often employs women struggling financially, and advocates noted that such women were some of the most vulnerable in society. The government cited concerns about past cases of providing subsidies to businesses with potential legal issues, such as possible ties to crime syndicates, but advocates argued that such concerns involve owners and managers, not workers and their children.

The law mandates equal pay for men and women; however, the International Labor Organization viewed the law as too limited because it does not capture the concept of “work of equal value.” Women’s average monthly wage was approximately 74 percent of that of men in 2019. The equal employment opportunity law includes prohibitions against policies or practices that have a discriminatory effect, even if unintended (called “indirect discrimination” in law), for all workers in recruitment, hiring, promotion, and changes of job type. Women continued to express concern about unequal treatment in the workforce, including sexual and pregnancy harassment. The law does not criminalize sexual harassment but includes measures to identify companies that fail to prevent it.

The women’s empowerment law requires national and local governments, as well as private-sector companies that employ at least 301 persons, to analyze women’s employment in their organizations and release action plans to promote women’s participation and advancement. Revisions to this law passed in 2019 increased the number of disclosure items for large companies in April and will expand the reporting requirements to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that employ at least 101 persons in April 2022.

In response to a record number of requests from government employees for consultations about power harassment, the Diet passed a set of labor law revisions in 2019 requiring companies to take preventive measures for power harassment in the workplace and creating additional requirements for companies to prevent sexual harassment. The revisions regarding power harassment went into effect in June, making it mandatory for large companies and an “obligation to make efforts” for SMEs until the end of March 2022. It is scheduled to become mandatory for SMEs from April 2022. The revisions regarding taking additional measures for preventing sexual harassment went into effect in July for all companies regardless of company size.

Media continued to report that sexual harassment targeting students during job-hunting activities was widespread. The government requires companies to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, but the regulations do not apply to students looking for jobs. To address this, universities issued warnings to students, and some companies revised conduct rules for employees interviewing student job applicants. According to a survey conducted by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation in May 2019, 10.5 percent of job seekers said they experienced sexual harassment. In June a revised law went into effect requiring companies to implement counseling, general workplace harassment training, and to investigate harassment complaints. According to a survey of 110 major companies, 67 percent reported they had already taken measures to protect student applicants, 13 percent reported they were planning to take protective steps, and 13 percent reported they had no plans to implement any changes. Some efforts include requiring that one-on-one meetings take place at company facilities, prohibiting alcohol consumption at meetings, and requiring same-sex only meetings. Tokyo Metropolitan Government began to allow job seekers to report sexual harassment using social media during the year.

Workers employed on term-limited contracts, known as “nonregular” workers, continued to receive lower pay, fewer benefits, and less job security than their “regular” colleagues performing the same work. The law was amended to include provisions to obligate employers to treat regular and nonregular workers equally when the job contents are the same and the scope of expected changes to the job content and work location are the same, and prohibit “unreasonable” differences in treatment. The labor law revisions related to equal pay for equal work for regular and nonregular workers went into effect in April for large companies and is scheduled to go into effect in April 2021 for SMEs.

To increase legitimate government hiring of persons with disabilities, as of 2019 the law requires verification of disability certificates to ensure the job candidate’s disability. Health and Labor Ministry statistics showed nearly 40 percent of government institutions missed hiring targets for persons with disabilities in 2019. The law mandates that both government and private companies hire at or above a designated minimum proportion of persons with disabilities (including mental disabilities). The law requires the minimum hiring rate for the government to be 2.5 percent and for private companies to be 2.2 percent. By law companies with more than 100 employees that do not hire the legal minimum percentage of persons with disabilities must pay a moderate fine per vacant position per month. Disability rights advocates claimed that some companies preferred to pay the mandated fine rather than hire persons with disabilities.

There is no penalty for government entities failing to meet the legal minimum hiring ratio for persons with disabilities.

When a violation of equal employment opportunity law is alleged, the Labor Ministry may request the employer report on the matter, and the ministry may issue advice, instructions, or corrective guidance. If the employer fails to report or files a false report, the employer may be subject to a fine. If the employer does not follow the ministry’s guidance, the employer’s name may be publicly disclosed. Government hotlines in prefectural labor bureau equal employment departments handled consultations concerning sexual harassment and mediated disputes when possible.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law establishes a minimum wage, which varies by prefecture but in all cases allows for earnings above the official poverty line. The government effectively enforced the minimum wage.

The law provides for a 40-hour workweek for most industries and, with exceptions, limits the number of overtime hours permitted in a fixed period. The law imposing caps on overtime work on large employers was extended to SMEs in April. Violators may face penalties including fines and imprisonment commensurate with those for similar crimes. Labor unions continued to criticize the government for failing to enforce the law regarding maximum working hours; workers, including those in government jobs, routinely exceeded the hours outlined in the law.

The government sets occupational safety and health (OSH) standards. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare is responsible for enforcing laws and regulations governing wages, hours, and OSH standards in most industries. The National Personnel Authority covers government officials. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry covers OSH standards for mining, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism is responsible for OSH standards in the maritime industry.

The government effectively enforced OSH laws, and penalties for OSH violations were commensurate with those for similar crimes. While inspectors have the authority to suspend unsafe operations immediately in cases of flagrant safety violations, in lesser cases they may provide nonbinding guidance. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Government officials acknowledged their resources were inadequate to oversee more than 4.3 million firms and that the number of labor inspectors was not sufficient to deter violations.

Reports of OSH violations in the TITP were common, including injuries due to unsafe equipment and insufficient training, nonpayment of wages and overtime compensation, excessive and often spurious salary deductions, forced repatriation, and substandard living conditions (also see section 7.b.).

There were 125,611 major industrial accidents in 2019 resulting in the death or injury of workers requiring them to be absent from work for more than four days (845 deaths). Falls, road traffic accidents, and injuries caused by heavy machinery were the most common causes of workplace fatalities. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare also continued to grant formal recognition to victims of karoshi (death by overwork). Their former employers and the government paid compensation to family members when conditions were met.

South Korea

Executive Summary

The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is a constitutional democracy governed by a president and a unicameral legislature. Observers considered the presidential election in 2017 and the April 15 legislative elections free and fair. Moon Jae-in was elected president in an early election following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye.

The Korean National Police Agency, under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, is responsible for internal security over land, and the Korea Coast Guard has jurisdiction over the sea. The National Intelligence Service investigates suspected criminal activity related to national security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces, and the government utilized effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse of power.

Significant human rights issues included: restrictions on freedom of expression, including criminalizing the sending of leaflets and other materials into North Korea, and the existence of criminal libel laws; corruption; and laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults in the military.

The government took steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office has responsibility for investigating whether killings by civilian security forces are justified and pursuing prosecution when appropriate. Military police investigate killings by military personnel.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, but there were a few reports that government officials employed them; the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported some instances of violence and cruel treatment in the military.

The Ministry of National Defense reported no instances of bullying in the military, although local NGOs believed hazing played a role in suicides in the military. The Center for Military Human Rights noted concern about the increase in suicide among military personnel from 51 deaths in 2017 to 62 in 2019, particularly among lower-ranked field officers, including sergeants and lieutenants.

Reports from NGOs and media of hazing and mistreatment of military personnel by more senior personnel persisted, with credible allegations of sexual and nonsexual harassment and assault. As in previous years, the Center for Military Human Rights’ hotline counselors responded to complaints of physical abuse, verbal abuse, and sex crimes. In June the center published a press release regarding an air force sergeant who allegedly sexually harassed enlisted soldiers verbally and physically, including by making obscene comments and by grabbing the soldiers from behind. According to the center, the harassment continued for months as soldiers did not speak out for fear of repercussions. After the soldiers came forth with their complaints and the center engaged with the air force to assist the soldiers, the air force reassigned the sergeant to another unit. The air force did not publicize whether any disciplinary action was taken against the sergeant.

With support from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), the Defense Ministry trains military human rights instructors. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry trained fewer instructors in person than in recent years, but conducted distance education. The ministry also worked with the Defense Media Agency to produce and distribute human rights education television programs to military personnel. Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were no significant reports regarding prison and detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns regarding physical conditions or inmate abuse in prisons and detention centers.

In May a prisoner who reportedly suffered from an anxiety disorder died in the Busan Detention Center the morning after he had been imprisoned. According to detention center personnel, his feet and hands had been bound because, among other reasons, he was incessantly ringing the bell for assistance. Security camera footage showed that the prisoner, who was awake late into the night, showed signs of decreased movement at approximately 4:00 a.m., fell unconscious at approximately 5:45 a.m., and was taken to a hospital around 7:00 a.m. He died at the hospital around 7:30 a.m. A Ministry of Justice investigation determined that his death had resulted from negligence, improper use of restraints, and lack of medical care during the night. In the aftermath of the incident, the ministry implemented corrective measures, including mandating the removal of restraints during sleeping hours and the establishment of an on-call system for doctors to provide telemedicine services at night and on holidays.

In response to concerns raised in 2019 about discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners, the Ministry of Justice conducted a campaign to ensure all correctional facilities were aware of and fully implementing the prisoner antidiscrimination law. In April the government disseminated updated guidelines for correctional facilities to improve the treatment of transgender prisoners, to include considering the preference of the prisoner and the guidance of experts when assigning prisoner accommodations.

Administration: According to the Ministry of Justice, inmates have several relief procedures available to them for any perceived violations of their rights. Detainees may petition the minister directly, file a complaint with the Human Rights Violation Hotline Center in the ministry or with the NHRCK, or appeal to the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission, to the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea, or to the Administrative Judgment Commission.

Independent Monitoring: There were no reports of problems in accessing prison facilities. The NHRCK and NGOs have access to correctional facilities to investigate reported cases of human rights violations.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements.

The National Security Law (NSL), in effect since 1948, grants authorities the power to detain, arrest, and imprison persons believed to have committed acts intended to endanger the “security of the state.” Domestic and international NGOs continued to call for reform or repeal of the law, contending its provisions do not clearly define prohibited activity and that it is used to intimidate and imprison individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression. By law the National Intelligence Service investigates activities that may threaten national security. Civil society groups argued that the agency’s powers and a lack of oversight enabled it to define its mandate overly broadly.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires warrants in cases of arrest, detention, seizure, or search unless authorities apprehend a person when committing a criminal act, a judge is not available, or if authorities believe a suspect may destroy evidence or flee if not arrested quickly. In such cases a public prosecutor or police officer must prepare an affidavit of emergency arrest immediately upon apprehension of the suspect. Authorities may not interrogate for more than six hours a person who voluntarily submits to questioning at a police station. Authorities must either indict or release an arrested suspect within 20 days. The law allows 10 additional days of detention in exceptional circumstances. The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office issues warrants in 15 foreign languages, including English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Thai, Khmer, Urdu, and Burmese.

There is a bail system. By law bail is authorized except for repeat offenders; those deemed a flight risk, danger to the public, or likely to attempt to destroy evidence; those charged with committing serious offenses; and those who have no fixed address. Even if one of the above justifications applies, a court may still grant bail if there is a “substantial reason” to do so.

The law provides for the right to representation by an attorney, including during police interrogation. There were no reports of denial of access to counsel. There are no restrictions on access to a lawyer, but authorities may limit a lawyer’s participation in an interrogation if the lawyer obstructs the interrogation or impedes an investigation. During the trial stage, and under certain circumstances during the pretrial stage, an indigent detainee may request that the government provide a lawyer.

Access to family members during detention varied according to the severity of the crime.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. By law defendants in criminal trials are presumed innocent, enjoy protection against self-incrimination, and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, with free interpretation as necessary; communicate with an attorney (at public expense if necessary); have a fair and speedy trial; attend the trial; and appeal. Defendants receive adequate time and resources to prepare a defense. They are protected against retroactive laws and double jeopardy, although prosecutors appealed not-guilty verdicts. By law initial trials must begin within six months of arrest.

Trials are generally open to the public, but judges may restrict attendance if they believe spectators might disrupt the proceedings. There is a jury trial system, but jury verdicts are not legally binding. In serious cases such as murder and rape, the judge may consent to a legally binding jury verdict, provided it is reached in consultation with the judge. The defendant must request a jury trial beforehand.

Judges have considerable scope to cross-examine witnesses for both the prosecution and defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The Ministry of Justice stated there were no persons incarcerated or detained because of their political beliefs. Some NGOs, however, argued that individuals arrested for violations of the NSL, for conscientious objection to military service, or for strike activities qualified as political prisoners.

On January 1, the Alternative Service Act took effect, allowing conscientious objectors to fulfill their military service obligations by working for 36 months at correctional facilities. Previously those who refused military service faced up to three years’ imprisonment. The Commission for Examination of Alternative Service began reviewing applications for alternative service on June 30, and as of August had granted 224 applications for alternative service, scheduled to commence in October. Civil society organizations assessed the new law as a clear improvement over the previous system, but still flawed. They noted the new law departs from international norms in several ways, including the length of alternative service, which appears punitive in comparison to the regular military service of less than two years. They also argued that the commission should fall under fully civilian oversight, rather than under the Ministry of National Defense.

Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that three conscientious objectors from their denomination were sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment during the year because courts determined that they were not sincere in their beliefs. In addition trials continued for 293 conscientious objectors charged with refusing to serve in the military or to participate in reserve forces training before the new law took effect in January. Prosecutors continued to appeal the “not guilty” verdicts in the cases of some conscientious objectors whom they asserted were not sincere in their beliefs. As of August the Commission for Examination of Alternative Service was evaluating the cases.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, and there were no problems enforcing domestic court orders. Citizens had court access to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse decisions to domestic human rights bodies, and then to the UN Human Rights Committee. Administrative remedies are also available for alleged wrongs.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such interference, and the government generally respected these prohibitions. The law establishes conditions under which the government may monitor telephone calls, mail, and other forms of communication for up to two months in criminal investigations and four months in national security cases. The Security Surveillance Act requires some persons sentenced to prison for breaching the NSL to report their whereabouts, travel plans, family relations, occupation, and financial status to a local police office within seven days of leaving prison and every third month thereafter.

While it does not outright prohibit access to North Korean media content, the NSL forbids citizens from listening to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) radio programs, viewing DPRK satellite telecasts, or reading books published in the DPRK if the government determines such an action endangers national security or the basic order of democracy. For example, citizens were prohibited from reading the Rodong Sinmun (the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party in the DPRK) or listening to broadcasts by the DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency. Enforcement of these prohibitions was rare, however.

The disease control law allows the government to access personal information such as mobile phone location and credit card transaction data without a warrant to conduct contact tracing to stop the spread of a pandemic. During the government’s COVID-19 response, most citizens accepted these infringements on privacy as necessary to protect public health. The government also published information on the whereabouts of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 to assist in contact tracing. After a cluster of cases emerged from LGBTI-friendly clubs in Seoul, the government released enough information about persons who had tested positive for COVID-19 that it was possible to identify certain individuals. The government also required some businesses, including nightclubs, to keep a log of persons who had visited the establishments, and some LGBTI individuals were hesitant to provide identifying information. Since many members of the LGBTI community keep their sexual orientation or gender identity secret due to fear of stigmatization, LGBTI rights advocates urged the government to find a balance between respect for individual privacy and the need for disease mitigation for public health and safety. Similarly, some religious groups voiced complaints about government invasion of privacy when clusters of COVID-19 cases arose in their communities.

In December 2019 the general military court sentenced General So Gang-won to one year’s imprisonment for illegal surveillance of civilians affected by the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. Nonetheless, the government’s interpretation and implementation of the NSL and other laws and provisions of the constitution limited freedom of speech and expression, and restricted access to the internet.

On December 14, the National Assembly passed an amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act criminalizing the act of disseminating or moving leaflets and other materials across the inter-Korean border to North Korea, including items such as cash and digital storage drives with South Korean news, documentaries, and television dramas, without obtaining prior approval. Under the revised law, which was promulgated on December 29 and takes effect on March 30, 2021, violators will face up to three years in prison or a substantial fine. The Ministry of Unification stated the purpose of the amendment was to protect the lives and ensure the safety of residents near the inter-Korean border. Human rights advocates and opposition political leaders criticized the amendment as an infringement of the freedom of expression. Former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon also called on the government to “rectify” human rights concerns raised by the amendment. Senior government officials and ruling-party lawmakers defended the amendment, arguing that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and must be balanced against national security concerns, pointing to a 2016 Supreme Court decision that permits the restriction of leaflet activities when they present an “imminent and serious threat” to the lives and physical security of residents in the border areas, and to a 2014 incident in which North Korea fired into the country following cross-border leafletting activity. On December 22, the ministry announced it would develop implementation guidelines that would clarify the scope of the law, with a 20-day period for public comment. The ministry stated it would review the comments and if needed, adjust the guidelines before the law goes into effect. (See section 5 on the revocation of operating permits of two leafletting NGOs.).

Freedom of Speech: The law provides for freedom of speech, although under defamation law and the NSL, the government may limit the expression of ideas. In its World Report 2020, Human Rights Watch contended the government maintained “unreasonable restrictions on freedom of expression,” citing the use of defamation laws, the NSL, and other laws.

In June the Daejeon district court in Gyeonggi Province fined a man 500,000 won ($423) for trespassing after he placed posters critical of President Moon in a building at Dankuk University. A university official called to testify against the man stated the poster had caused no physical damage and that he did not want him to be punished, noting that the law guarantees the freedom of expression.

Under the election law, the government may limit the expression of ideas that the National Election Commission deems to be false.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, within the constraints cited above.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government and public figures used libel and slander laws, which broadly define and criminalize defamation, to restrict public discussion and harass, intimidate, or censor private and media expression. The law allows punishment of up to three years in prison for statements found to be “slander” or “libel,” even if factual, and up to seven years for statements found to be false. The law punishes defamation of deceased persons as well; the maximum punishment if convicted is two years’ imprisonment. NGOs and human rights attorneys continued to note cases of politicians, government officials, and celebrities using the libel laws to deter victims of workplace sexual harassment from coming forward or to retaliate against such victims.

In August a Seoul appeals court convicted Ko Young-ju, a critic of President Moon, of defamation and sentenced him to a 10-month suspended sentence and two years’ probation. In 2013 Ko asserted that Moon was a “communist” and that, should he become president, “it’s a matter of time before our country becomes a communist country.” Prosecutors first indicted Ko in 2017 after Moon became president, but the Seoul Central District Court acquitted him in 2018. A conservative NGO criticized the decision reversing Ko’s acquittal as politicized and condemned the outcome as contrary to the law, which recognizes that the freedom to criticize top public figures is the foundation of a strong democracy.

National Security: The NSL criminalizes actions interpreted to be in support of North Korea or otherwise against the state. The government used this law to arrest and imprison civilians and to deport foreigners. The Supreme Court has ruled the NSL constitutional seven times since 1992, most recently in 2015. As of September the Supreme Court was considering a new challenge to the constitutionality of the NSL. Critics decried the law’s limitations on free expression and continued to call for repeal of the law.

According to the Ministry of Justice, prosecutions under the NSL have decreased significantly since 2015, with 40 cases in 2015, 17 in 2016, 14 in 2017, three each in 2018 and 2019, and three cases from January to June during the year. NGOs reported that prosecutions in recent years have not resulted in imprisonment.

Internet Freedom

There were some government restrictions on internet access, and the government monitored email and internet chat rooms with wide legal authority.

The Korea Communications Standards Commission, a government body, blocked 101,139 websites it deemed harmful from January to June, consistent with its total of 206,759 sites blocked in 2019. The majority of blocked sites involved gambling, illegal food or drugs, or pornography. The commission also blocked North Korean propaganda on YouTube and Twitter. Although viewing websites praising the DPRK regime is lawful, disseminating information about those websites, including posting links to those sites, is illegal under the NSL. Other blocked sites included those promoting illegal trade of internal organs, forgery of documents, violating intellectual property rights, or encouraging suicide.

The communications standards commission determines whether posts made on social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, or in chat rooms, contain unlawful content, defined as harmful or illegal speech. If the government finds prohibited materials, it has the authority to warn the user. If the prohibited content is not removed, the user’s account may be blocked.

Although persons may use a false name when making online postings to large websites, the election campaign law requires real names for internet postings about upcoming elections.

Freedom House assessed the country’s media as generally free and competitive.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Teachers are subject to the same law on political activities that applies to civil servants. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family monitors song lyrics and may ban content it considers obscene. The Communication Standards Commission governs and maintains ethical standards in broadcasting and internet communications.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The law may be used to prohibit or limit assemblies considered likely to undermine public order and requires advance notification for demonstrations of all types, including political rallies. Police must notify organizers if they consider an event impermissible under the law. Police banned some protests by groups that had not properly registered or that were responsible for violent protests in the past. Police decisions to ban protests were subject to both administrative and judicial appeal. As of August the police received 82,433 assembly requests, of which it refused 1,562. All but one of the refusals were because of restrictions on public gatherings instituted as part of the government’s COVID-19 response.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel (except to North Korea), emigration, and repatriation; the government generally respected these rights.

Foreign Travel: Citizens traveling to North Korea must obtain prior authorization from the Ministry of Unification. The travelers must demonstrate their trip has no political purpose. Visiting North Korea without prior government authorization is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment under the NSL.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated to a limited extent with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Local NGOs reported cases of abuse against migrant workers, including physical abuse, confiscation of passports, inadequate housing, and sexual harassment.

NGOs and advocates continued to criticize conditions in the “departure waiting area” at Incheon Airport. This area, funded and staffed by airlines, was for travelers (including migrants and asylum seekers) denied entry into the country. They described the living conditions in the waiting area as substandard, lacking privacy, bedding, and medical care, especially for those confined to the area for several months.

Occupants of the waiting area depended on their respective airlines for food. Some received fast-food meals three times a day, while others received nothing and relied on other travelers or their lawyers for sustenance. According to the Ministry of Justice, on average 106 persons used the area at Incheon Airport daily in 2018, the last year for which statistics were available, with 98 percent departing within four days.

In October 2019 authorities allowed an Angolan couple and their four children to enter the country after more than eight months in the departure waiting area of Incheon Airport. They had arrived in December 2018 and requested asylum, alleging torture and sexual abuse at the hands of Angolan police. In January 2019 the Incheon Airport Office of Immigration denied the family’s preliminary petition, stating it believed the family’s motivation for immigration was economic. The family filed a lawsuit to appeal the denial. In June 2019 the National Human Rights Commission of Korea and rights activists cited the Angolan family when calling for better treatment of asylum seekers at the airport. In April media reported that the family lived in an apartment, the children attended school and received psychological and medical treatment, and as of September their asylum applications were pending.

NGOs and advocates for asylum seekers decried the lack of public data on the numbers of refugee applicants turned away after preliminary screening at airports.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

The government considers refugees from North Korea under a separate legal framework and does not include them in refugee or asylum statistics. The government continued its longstanding policy of accepting refugees or defectors from North Korea, who by law are entitled to citizenship.

In recent years the Ministry of Justice increased the number of refugee officers at its 10 immigration offices from 39 in 2018 to 93 as of September. NGOs had previously pointed to understaffing as a major obstacle to accommodating the rising number of refugee and asylum applications, but they said restrictions on international travel resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic had greatly reduced both the number of asylum seekers and also the government’s case-processing time. The government operated asylum application counters at airports and harbors to allow asylum seekers to file applications upon entering the country. These immigration offices screen applications and determine if a case is eligible to proceed for refugee status review. The Justice Ministry operated an immigration reception center in Incheon to receive refugees, asylum seekers awaiting adjudication, and temporary humanitarian stay permit holders. The center had a maximum capacity of 82 persons.

The law protects asylum seekers’ right to an attorney. Asylum seekers may ask for interpretation and legal aid services from the government and for services to adjust to living in the country while their application is pending. Some NGOs and asylum seekers, however, stated applicants faced difficulty finding qualified interpreters. Applicants may receive a work permit six months after submitting an application. The permit is valid for the duration of their lawful stay in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides grounds on which an asylum seeker at a port of entry may be denied referral for full asylum procedures. These include arrival “from a safe country of origin or a safe third country, in which little possibility of persecution exists.”

Access to Basic Services: Cultural, linguistic, and social differences made adjustment difficult for refugees and asylum seekers. Many migrants from North Korea and other countries alleged societal discrimination and were not always provided access to basic services. These cases were often underreported.

Temporary Protection: The law offers renewable one-year short-term humanitarian status to those who do not qualify as “refugees” (who have well founded fears of persecution on protected grounds) but nonetheless have reasonable grounds to believe their life or personal freedom may be violated by torture or otherwise egregiously endangered. Temporary humanitarian stay permit holders do not have the same access to basic services as refugees and therefore rely heavily on NGOs for housing and support. Due to the government’s restrictions on the type of jobs humanitarian stay permit holders may hold, many of them faced difficulty in securing jobs. Those who did find jobs were largely limited to poorly paid “3-D” (dirty, difficult, and dangerous) jobs.

As of June there were 675 Yemenis in Korea with humanitarian stay status. In September the Ministry of Justice stated it had renewed the temporary humanitarian stay status of all Yemenis who applied for extensions.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The presidential election in 2017 and legislative elections on April 15 were considered free and fair. The 2017 presidential election was held early because of the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye. In the April legislative elections, the ruling Democratic Party and its satellite Citizens Party won 180 of 300 seats.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Although persons may generally use an alias when making online postings to websites, the election campaign law requires real names for internet postings about forthcoming elections. Civil society groups continued to call on the National Assembly to repeal that section of the election campaign law, asserting that such laws prohibit the electorate from freely expressing views, imparting information, and supporting campaigns.

In its 2019 annual report, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea recommended the revision of the law that limits the political activities of public officials and teachers. According to the commission, the government rigorously and extensively regulates political expression by public officials and teachers, even in their private lives and regardless of their job duties. Public officials are also prohibited from joining political parties.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws prevent women or members of minority groups from voting, running for office, serving as electoral monitors, or otherwise participating in political life, and they did participate. Women, including the country’s first female deputy speaker (confirmed in June), were elected to 19 percent of seats in the National Assembly in April, an increase from the previous 17 percent.

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 three of a five-year anticorruption plan aimed at fighting corruption in both the public and private sectors. Commission members included the Ministry of Justice, the Board of Audit and Inspection, the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, and the Korean National Police Agency, 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.

In January the government established the independent Corruption Investigation Office for High Ranking Officials to improve the transparency and credibility of investigations of corruption allegations against senior government officials, lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors. In September the ruling Democratic Party established an ethics committee to monitor and inspect legal and ethical issues involving lawmakers, elected public officials, and party staffers. On September 18, the party expelled first-term lawmaker Kim Hong-gul, son of former president Kim Dae-jung, over allegations that he had failed to report all of his real estate assets before taking office.

As of October the investigation into alleged corruption by former justice minister Cho Kuk, his wife Chung Kyung-sim, and others connected to his family continued. In December 2019 prosecutors indicted Cho on charges of receiving bribes, graft, abuse of power, violating the ethics code of public servants, and other crimes. In June a Seoul court sentenced the son of Cho’s cousin to four years’ imprisonment for financial crimes and for concealing and destroying company documents detrimental to Cho’s family. The businessman invested former minister Cho’s family assets in a manufacturing company that had received massive orders from government offices after Cho’s appointment in 2017. The court found that Cho’s cousin’s son colluded with Cho’s wife to destroy evidence after allegations about the family’s corruption emerged in August 2019.

In September the Seoul prosecutor’s office indicted first-term National Assembly lawmaker Yoon Mi-hyang on charges of fraud, embezzlement, dereliction of duty, and other charges relating to the misuse of funds during her tenure as the former head of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an NGO dedicated to supporting former comfort women. As of September the investigation continued.

Transparency International Korea, an anticorruption advocacy NGO, noted improvement in the country’s level of corruption since 2017, particularly in the government’s capacity to prevent civil servants from abusing their posts, reduction of corruption in the political sector, and ability to handle corruption issues and cases. It found, however, that the degree of corruption in public-sector economic activities had not improved.

Financial Disclosure: By law public servants above a specified rank, including elected officials, must publicly declare their income and assets, including real estate, and report how they accumulated them. Failure to disclose assets fully is punishable by up to one year in prison and a substantial fine.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.

Some human rights organizations said the government restricted activities of certain NGOs focused on the DPRK. In July the Ministry of Unification revoked the operating permits of Fighters for a Free North Korea and Keun Saem, two defector-led South Korea-based NGOs that send leaflets across the border to North Korea. The ministry justified the revocations on a number of grounds, arguing that cross-border leafletting is a violation of the 2018 Panmunjon Agreement between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK, and citing national security concerns. It specifically noted that a 2016 Supreme Court ruling permits restriction of leaflet activities when they present an “imminent and serious threat” to the lives and physical security of residents in the border areas; that residents living in border areas must deal with security concerns caused by the leaflets; and that there are ecological concerns, as the majority of leaflets ended up in South Korea or in the ocean, in violation of environmental law. Following suits by two NGOs, as of August the Seoul administrative court stayed the revocation of their permits pending a court determination on the legality of the ministry’s actions.

Separately, in August the Ministry of Unification launched inspections of 25 ministry-registered NGOs, some of which are involved in activities related to DPRK human rights and defector resettlement assistance. The ministry called the administrative inspections overdue routine procedures that had been delayed due to personnel shortages. Critics viewed both actions as suppressing activists’ and defectors’ freedom of expression and disrupting civil society efforts to highlight human rights abuses in the DPRK and improve the lives of North Korean residents.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Human Rights Commission of Korea, established as an independent government body to protect and promote the human rights enumerated in the constitution, does not have enforcement power, and its recommendations and decisions are nonbinding. It investigates complaints, issues policy recommendations, trains local officials, and conducts public-awareness campaigns. Within the Korean National Police Agency, a committee of nine members, six of whom are representatives of human rights organizations, investigates alleged police violations of human rights.

The Ombudsman’s Office reports to the independent Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission and had adequate resources to fulfill its duties. The Ombudsman’s Office issued annual reports and interacted with various government institutions, including the Office of the President, the National Assembly, and ministries.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women; rape not involving vaginal sexual intercourse is considered “imitative rape.” The penalty for rape ranges from a minimum of three years’ to life imprisonment depending on the specific circumstances, while “imitative rape” carries a minimum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. Although no specific statute defines spousal rape as illegal, the Supreme Court acknowledged marital rape as illegal. Rape and “imitative rape” are 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 plus fines for domestic violence offenses. Noncompliance with domestic violence restraining orders may result in a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a substantial fine. 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 a Ministry of Justice committee to sentence repeat sex offenders to “chemical castration,” where sex offenders undergo drug treatment designed to diminish sexual urges. No such sentence was carried out between January and September.

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 were underreported and underprosecuted.

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 minister for gender equality, 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 Digital Sex Crime Victim Support Center, launched in 2018 by the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family, assists victims in requesting the deletion of images and videos from websites and supports victims in collecting evidence and filing police reports. It also makes referrals for free legal services and provides financial assistance for medical expenses. (For more on sex crimes facilitated by the internet, see “Sexual Exploitation of Children” below.)

Domestic violence remained a significant and underreported problem. According to official statistics, 240,564 cases of domestic violence were reported in 2019, a 3 percent decrease from 2018.

NGOs and media continued to report on crimes against and mistreatment of foreign brides. Starting in the 1980s, rural local governments began subsidizing private marriage brokers who could connect unmarried men to foreign women, initially ethnic Korean Chinese and in recent years primarily Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Filipina. Civil society advocates argued that the subsidies amounted to “wife buying” and asserted that the brides were particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses because they tended to have a poor grasp of the Korean language, were often significantly younger than their husbands and lacked a support network in the country. According to a 2018 report by the NHRCK, 42 percent of foreign-born brides have experienced domestic violence and 68 percent have experienced unwanted sexual advances. In contrast, 29 percent of women from South Korea surveyed by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2019 said that they were victims of domestic violence.

In April a court sentenced a Gyeonggi Province man to 15 years’ imprisonment for the November 2019 murder of his wife, whom he wed in Vietnam the day after they first met. Much younger than her husband and with very limited knowledge of the Korean language, the woman was reportedly in constant conflict with her husband over lifestyle and financial issues after moving to South Korea in August 2019.

In response to violence against migrant brides, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family established five counseling centers for migrant women victims of sexual or domestic violence in 2019. The centers operated shelters for victims needing emergency protection from violence. The Ministry of Justice instituted a “one strike” policy in 2019 to prevent a person convicted of domestic violence from petitioning for a visa for a foreign bride. Observers noted that the addition of a “right to request investigation” policy might make foreign spouses more vulnerable. The policy would allow the South Korean spouse to petition immigration authorities directly to investigate the foreign spouse in the event of separation.

The Gender Equality Ministry operated the Special Center for Reporting Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault. In 2019, a total of 276,122 cases of sexual violence were reported to 170 sexual violence counseling centers nationwide, including 104 centers funded by the central and local governments and 39 government-funded “sunflower centers” that provided counseling, medical care and therapy, caseworkers, and legal assistance. The reported cases represented a 12.6 percent increase since 2018. Civil society advocates attributed the increase in reported cases to women’s increased willingness to speak out about sexual violence after the start of Korea’s #MeToo movement, which began in January 2018. According to NGOs, sunflower centers generally provided adequate support to victims of sexual assault.

Sexual harassment was a significant social problem, and there were numerous allegations of sexual harassment, including high-profile cases involving public officials, reported in media throughout the year.

Seoul mayor Park Won-soon died by suicide July 9, the day after his former secretary filed a complaint to the police alleging that Park had sexually harassed her. According to the complaint, from 2017 onward Park had repeatedly touched the woman without her consent and sent her inappropriate messages and photos, with the harassment continuing even after she transferred offices. In a statement made after Park’s death, the secretary said that Park had sent her photos of him wearing only underwear and called her into a bedroom attached to his office, asking her to embrace him. By law the case terminated after Park’s death. Women’s rights advocates and the complainant’s lawyer, however, continued to press for a complete investigation. Park was known as a champion for women’s rights and was highly regarded for his successful representation in 1993 of the victim in what is seen as the country’s first sexual harassment case.

The mayor of Busan, Oh Geo-don, resigned in April after admitting to “unnecessary physical contact” with a female subordinate. The Busan Counseling Center against Sexual Violence provided assistance to the victim and called on the Busan city government to eliminate its male-centric work culture through gender equality training and other measures. In August the former mayor was indicted on charges of indecent assault. As of September the case continued.

Reproductive Rights: Under the law couples and individuals have the right to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health, and they had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. There were no legal, social, or cultural barriers or any government policy that adversely affected access to contraception or skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. The government also provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for sexual violence survivors.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights under the constitution as men. Women, however, experienced societal abuses and employment discrimination (see section 7.d.).

Children

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 13.7 percent increase in reported child abuse cases from 2018 to 2019, attributed in part to increased public awareness and expanded child welfare reporting requirements.

The ministry conducted human rights training for case managers and other employees associated with their Dream Start program, a program that provides educational, health, and developmental services for disadvantaged children and their families.

As in previous years, reports of abuse at daycare centers received national attention. In July a court in Gangwon Province sentenced a daycare instructor to 14 months’ imprisonment on charges of physically and emotionally abusing one-year-old children at the daycare center where she worked. The instructor pinched and slapped babies and forced them to stand for long periods, among other abuse. The court also fined the director of the daycare center three million won ($2,585) for failure to properly supervise the employee and prevent the abuse.

Child, 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: In May the government raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and introduced stricter punishments for other child sex crimes. It is illegal to deceive or pressure anyone younger than 19 into having sexual intercourse. 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 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 sexual abuse materials for the purpose of selling, leasing, or distributing for profit are subject to a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment, and in May the government increased or established minimum penalties for child pornography crimes. Under the revised law, the minimum sentence for distribution of child pornography for profit is five years’ imprisonment, distribution not for profit is three years’ imprisonment, and possession or purchase of child pornography is one year’s imprisonment.

The May amendments to the law were collectively termed the Nth Room Prevention Act. “Nth Room” refers to online chatrooms whose administrators coerced women and minors into producing degrading and sometimes violent pornographic videos. In March authorities arrested Cho Ju-bin, the operator of one of these chatrooms called the “Doctor’s Room,” where users circulated sexual abuse content. By June authorities had arrested 37 others on charges of organizing, joining, or running a criminal organization. According to prosecutors, the “Doctor’s Room” channel operators blackmailed at least 74 victims, including minors, into sending explicit and humiliating photos and videos. Some victims were allegedly forced to drink out of a toilet or carve their blackmailer’s name into their flesh. Cho sold access to this content via Telegram, a social media application. Police alleged that some coconspirators blackmailed victims, including minors, into having sex with them. The Seoul Central District Court found Cho guilty and on November 26 sentenced him to 40 years’ imprisonment.

On July 6, the Seoul High Court made a final ruling against extraditing the operator of a dark-web child pornography website to the United States. Son Jong-woo had served 18 months in prison after his 2018 conviction for producing and circulating child pornography. Son’s website featured more than eight terabytes of child pornography, including more than 250,000 unique videos, which made it the largest sexual exploitation market in the world by volume of content before it was seized by authorities in 2018. Further investigations resulted in the rescue of dozens of child victims around the world who were actively being abused by users of the site. Women’s and children’s rights activists and NGOs criticized Son’s sentence as far too lenient for the crime, especially since his website had resulted in the abuse of children by encouraging the creation and upload of new content. NGOs assessed that judicial officials lacked a sufficient understanding of the seriousness of digital sexual violence and criticized them for denying the extradition request.

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.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community numbered approximately 1,000 individuals, almost all expatriates. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

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 substantial fine. 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 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 or sufficient support to achieve self-reliance. Employment rates of adults with disabilities remained 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.

In 2019 the government amended the law to eliminate the six-degree scale of disability, and instead sort persons with disabilities into two classes: “severely disabled” and “not severely disabled.” NGOs reported that while they understood the purpose of the revision of the law to be the expansion of services for persons with disabilities, the revision was insufficient. They noted there was no corresponding increase in the government budget and that they had received reports of decreased access to services, rather than an increase.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare continued to implement a comprehensive set of policies that included increasing 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 January the ministry established a hotline to receive reports of abuse of persons with disabilities, and a new system for tracking and documenting the resulting investigation and other interventions. In June a new law took effect to provide access for persons with visual impairments and deaf-blind persons to information through government provision of communication aids including braille books, audio books, and other tools.

The government operated rehabilitation hospitals in seven 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 younger than age 18 with disabilities 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 age three to 17 with disabilities had access to a separate public special education school system. 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.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

As of May more than 2.1 million foreigners (including an estimated 400,000 undocumented migrants) lived in the country, whose otherwise ethnically homogeneous population totaled approximately 51.8 million.

The country lacked a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. In March the National Human Rights Commission stated the country has “failed to take seriously the issue of racial discrimination in our society” and underlined calls by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for the government to take measures to stop racial discrimination. The 2019 committee report cited by the commission urged the government to enact comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation, noting that existing laws do not go far enough to protect minorities, including migrant workers, asylum seekers, and foreign spouses, from discrimination.

Societal discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities was common but underreported. According to a 2019 human rights commission survey, migrants reported discrimination by court workers, workplace supervisors, and immigration office personnel. A large majority of immigrants and naturalized citizens were female spouses, and they were reportedly often the victim of domestic violence. (See also section 6, “Women.”)

While conditions improved for Yemenis who in 2019 received refugee status or humanitarian stay permits that allowed them to stay in the country and work, they continued to experience discrimination, both at work and in the community.

Some children of immigrants suffered from discrimination and lack of access to social resources, such as child-care support available only to Korean children. Some children of non-Korean or multiple ethnicities were also bullied because of their physical appearance.

NGOs, international organizations, and the National Human Rights Commission stated that the government’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic discriminated against foreigners. At first, millions of international students, migrant workers, and other foreigners who had not purchased health insurance in country were not allowed to purchase facemasks produced by government-designated suppliers.

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese nationals and Chinese persons of Korean heritage experienced a number of forms of discrimination, including demands that their children withdraw from school, loss of employment, denial of entry to restaurants, and stigmatization in their communities.

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.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law that established the National Human Rights Commission prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and authorizes the commission to review cases of such discrimination, although its recommended relief measures are nonbinding. The law does not specifically prohibit 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.

Despite the National Human Rights Commission’s repeated calls for the National Assembly to adopt a comprehensive antidiscrimination law that would penalize with imprisonment or fines discriminatory practices on the basis of gender, age, race, religion, or sexual orientation, among others, the bill was stalled in the legislature. More than 88.5 percent of those surveyed in June supported passage of an antidiscrimination law, but politically powerful conservative Christian groups that reject LGBTI rights vehemently opposed such a law.

NGOs noted the Military Service Act’s prohibition on sexual activity between men led to abuse of LGBTI soldiers. In its 2019 report, Amnesty International stated the military code institutionalizes discrimination, reinforces systematic disadvantages for LGBTI persons, and risks inciting or justifying violence against them inside the military and in broader society.

In August the navy discharged a gay service member as a result of what the Center for Military Human Rights Korea called a “crackdown” on LGBTI service members. According to the center, in 2019 the navy sought out LGBTI service members under the pretext of counseling and in at least one case interrogated a person within earshot of other service members. Investigators asked for detailed accounts of sexual interactions between soldiers and searched soldiers’ cell phones for evidence of same-sex 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.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law protects the right to confidentiality of persons with HIV or AIDS and prohibits discrimination against them. According to local NGOs, however, persons with HIV or AIDS continued to suffer from societal discrimination and social stigma.

Correctional facilities staff revealed the HIV-positive status of prisoners by making announcements about the movement of “special patients” before transferring them, and by preventing prisoners with HIV/AIDS from exercising with the rest of the prisoners.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, conduct strikes within strict limits, and bargain collectively, but certain limitations apply to public officials and teachers.

The law recognizes workers’ right to strike; workers in essential services are required to provide “minimum service” during strikes to protect the public interest. Essential services are defined by law to include railroads, air transport, communications, water supply, and hospitals. The trade union law prohibits the use of replacement workers to conduct general business disrupted by strikes, but in essential services employers may hire replacements for up to 50 percent of striking workers.

By law parties involved in a “labor dispute” must first undergo third-party mediation through the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) or seek a labor-management settlement before registering to strike. Strikes initiated following this period are legal if they obtain majority support from union membership. The law narrowly defines “labor dispute,” which makes strikes on many issues falling under managerial control, such as downsizing and layoffs, illegal. Strikes not specifically pertaining to labor conditions, wages, benefits, or working hours are illegal. Stakeholders noted strike procedures were overly burdensome. Participating in strikes deemed to be illegal may result in imprisonment or a fine for the organizers and participants, depending on the offense.

Laws banning education workers from engaging in certain political activities, such as joining a political party or openly endorsing a political party or candidate, also constrained unions’ abilities to advocate for their positions. The law also prohibits dismissed workers from remaining in unions.

The law permits workers to file complaints of unfair labor practices against employers who interfere with union organizing or who discriminate against union members. The NLRC may require employers to reinstate workers fired for union activities. The law prohibits retribution against workers who strike legally. Labor organizations asserted that the inability of full-time labor-union officials to receive wages and the onerous registration requirements for individuals involved in collective bargaining effectively limited legal protections against unfair labor practices. In June a law took effect that allows employers to assist labor unions with operational expenses. Labor-union activists viewed the law as a step forward because previously employers were prohibited from providing such assistance.

The government generally enforced legislation related to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and collective action, including legal strikes, and the penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. In addition an employer may be penalized for noncompliance with a labor relations commission order to reinstate a worker. The law sets penalties in the form of fines or imprisonment against employers who refuse unions’ legitimate requests for bargaining. In December 2019, 26 Samsung Electronics executives were found guilty of union busting by planning and executing a scheme to break up the Samsung Electronics Service Union. The Seoul Central District Court sentenced Samsung vice president Kang Kyung-hoon to 18 months in prison, and other senior executives also faced imprisonment. The court determined that the executives had masterminded a plan of intimidation intended to thwart unionization in the company and its subcontractors.

Labor organizations generally operated without government interference.

Undocumented foreign workers faced difficulties participating in union activities due to fear of exposing themselves to arrest and deportation. “Dispatched workers” (those on temporary contracts) faced increased risk of nonrenewal of their work contract if they joined unions or engaged in industrial disputes.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally enforced the law effectively but did not consistently identify cases of forced labor; penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

NGOs continued to report that some migrant workers were subject to forced labor, particularly those who had incurred thousands of dollars in debt for payment of recruitment fees, making them vulnerable to debt bondage. Some migrant workers in the agriculture, livestock, and fishing industries faced conditions indicative of forced labor, including deceptive recruiting practices, confiscation of passports, and nonpayment of wages.

NGOs reported harsh conditions for migrant seafarers, many of whom worked more than 18 hours per day. Migrant seafarers, primarily from Southeast Asia, were physically or verbally abused by Korean captains and other crew and were forced to work even when sick. According to NGOs, deep-sea fishing vessels depended heavily on migrant seafarers; 73.3 percent of workers on Korean deep-sea vessels in 2018 were migrants.

The government continued investigations of working conditions for foreign sailors. From May to June, the coast guard conducted enforcement operations for human rights violations against migrant workers in the fisheries industry. Similar operations in 2019 resulted in the arrest by maritime police of 94 individuals for suspected human rights or worker rights abuses. Stakeholders reported that such enforcement activities were limited by jurisdictional disputes between the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

The government also investigated instances of abuse, including forced labor, against workers with intellectual disabilities in the fisheries industry.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits employing minors younger than age 15 without an authorization certificate from the Ministry of Employment and Labor, and the government generally enforced the law. Authorities issued few such certificates for full-time employment because education is compulsory through the end of middle school. Children ages 15 to 18 may work with the consent of at least one parent or guardian. Employers in industries considered harmful or hazardous to a minor’s morals or health may not hire them and face fines or imprisonment for violations. The maximum penalty for child labor, two years’ imprisonment, was not commensurate with that for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping, which is penalized by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Through September the government reported no violations of child labor laws.

There were some reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children (see section 6, Children.).

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment or occupation on the basis of gender, nationality, social status, religion, or disability. No law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of language or HIV or other communicable disease status. The penalties for employment discrimination were commensurate with laws related to similar violations. The law prohibits companies with more than 30 employees from asking job applicants about family members, place of origin, marital status, age, or property ownership.

The law provides for equal pay for equal work. The government inconsistently enforced the law, and discrimination occurred with respect to gender. The gender pay gap was 32.5 percent in 2019. Workers’ rights groups attributed the gap to women’s childcare and household responsibilities. A higher percentage of women filled lower-paying, low-skilled, contract jobs, and women often faced difficulties returning to the workforce after childbirth. Legal restrictions against women in employment included limits on working hours, occupations, and tasks. In particular the law restricted women’s participation in “hazardous” occupations such as mining.

The government’s Sixth Basic Plan on Equal Employment and Work-Life Balance for 2018 to 2022 provides a roadmap for a policy on women’s employment that consists of three pillars: creating nondiscriminatory working environments, preventing interruptions in women’s careers, and providing re-employment for “career-interrupted” women.

The workplace antibullying law requires employers to take action to fight bullying in the workplace. According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 70 percent of persons surveyed in 2018 said they had been bullied at work. By law employers convicted of failing to take action to protect bullied employees face a fine and up to three years in prison.

The law prohibits discrimination against subcontracted (also known as “dispatched”) and temporary workers, who comprised approximately one-third of all wage workers and were found especially in the electronics, automotive, and service sectors. Nonetheless, NGOs and local media reported discrimination against informal or irregular workers (those who do not have full-time, permanent employment and who do not receive benefits at the same level as permanent workers). For example, while the law requires the conversion to permanent status of those employed longer than two years, employers often laid off irregular workers shortly before the two-year mark. To address this problem, the government provides subsidies and tax breaks to encourage businesses to hire temporary workers on a permanent basis, according to the labor ministry. The International Labor Organization noted that the disadvantaged status of irregular workers contributed to discrimination against women given that women were overrepresented among these workers.

Discrimination in the workplace occurred against persons with HIV/AIDS, women, persons with disabilities, and migrant workers.

Many migrant workers faced workplace discrimination. The maximum length of stay permitted under the Employee Permit System is four years and 10 months, just under the five years needed to apply for permanent residency. NGOs and civil society groups asserted this policy is designed to exclude foreign workers from permanent residence or citizenship eligibility. NGOs stated it remained difficult for migrant workers to change employers (see sections 7.b. and 7.e.).

The law allows employers to pay foreign workers on South Korean-flagged ships lower wages than South Korean workers. The minimum wage for Korean workers is set by the government while industry and trade union representatives, who do not represent foreign workers, set the minimum wage for foreign employees. According to NGOs, the rate for domestic crewmembers is five times higher than for foreign workers. Further, unlike citizens, foreign sailors are not entitled to profit sharing. Many foreign seafarers reported to NGOs that they received only 600,000 won ($517) in monthly wages.

The law prohibits recruiters, agents, employers, or managers from receiving money or other valuables or benefits from job seekers or employees in exchange for securing employment. Nevertheless, NGOs reported South Korean-flagged vessel owners routinely demanded security deposits from foreign crewmembers to discourage them from transferring jobs.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

During the year the minimum wage increased 2.9 percent and was above the official poverty line. NGOs reported that as the minimum wage increased, employers tried to curb expenses by reducing work hours, listing employees as “on-call” at home when they were in fact at work, employing undocumented foreign workers, and charging migrant workers for their accommodations and board.

The law allows a flexible system under which employees may work more than eight hours during certain days and more than 40 hours per week during certain weeks (up to a maximum of 52 hours in a single week), so long as average weekly work hours for any two-week period do not exceed 40 hours and workers have a mandatory day of rest each week. For employers who adopt a flexible system, hours exceeding 80 in a two-week period constitute overtime. Foreign companies operating in export-processing zones are exempt from labor regulations that mandate one day of rest a week. The law limits overtime of ordinary workers to 12 hours a week.

The government generally effectively enforced laws on wages and acceptable conditions of work in most sectors, but migrants faced discriminatory laws and practices. The Labor Ministry was responsible for enforcement of these laws and the number of labor inspectors was sufficient to deter violations in most sectors. Inspectors had the authority to identify unsafe conditions, conduct unannounced visits, and issue corrective orders. Penalties for violations included imprisonment and fines and were generally commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

Regulations outline legal protections for migrant and foreign workers. Inspections covered businesses with foreign workers, particularly in the agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and construction sectors, which generally had poor working conditions. Migrants’ rights advocates noted the government inspected only a small percentage of workplaces that hire migrant workers and asserted that employers were not deterred from violating labor standards because most inspections were perfunctory and, even if violations were found, the typical result was a corrective order.

Migrant workers faced multiple restrictions on employment mobility, which left them vulnerable to exploitation. Migrant workers must obtain the consent of their current employers to switch jobs. The Ministry of Labor stated that migrant workers may apply to change workplaces without the employer’s consent when an employer violates the law, but NGOs argued that violations were hard to prove and vulnerable workers were unlikely to be aware of this right.

In one instance an employer told a migrant worker owed four months’ salary in back wages that he would provide the needed approval only in exchange for a payment that exceeded the back wages. In another case a Cambodian agricultural migrant who had not been paid in three years could not leave her job because she did not have the employer’s approval. The employer told media that paying fines for violating the labor standards law was less expensive than paying the back wages.

In March migrant workers seeking to overturn the restriction on changing workplaces filed a constitutional appeal. As of September the case was pending.

Migrant workers lose their legal status if they lose their job and do not find another employer within three months. Authorities may then cancel the work permit, forcing the worker either to return home or to remain in the country illegally. This caused difficulties for seasonal workers such as those involved in agriculture or construction. Migrant workers did not have access to lists of companies that were hiring when they wanted to change jobs, which made it more difficult for these workers to change jobs freely.

To prevent violations and improve working conditions for migrant and foreign workers, the government provided pre-employment training to newly arrived foreign workers, workplace adaptation training to those who changed workplaces, and training to employers who hired foreign workers. The government funded 44 Foreign Workers Support Centers nationwide to provide foreign workers with counseling services in 16 languages, Korean language and cultural programs, shelter, and free health-care services. It also ran a call center to help foreign workers resolve grievances. The government also funded multicultural family and migrant plus centers to provide foreign workers, international marriage immigrants, and other multicultural families with a one-stop service center providing immigration, welfare, and education services.

The law requires severance payments to migrant workers who have worked in the country for at least one year. Many workers, however, reported difficulty in receiving severance pay prior to their departure and stated they did not receive payments even after returning to their country of origin, due to banking regulations and delinquent employers. NGOs confirmed many departing migrants never received these payments and that the COVID-19 pandemic magnified these difficulties.

Some NGOs reported migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation because the law excludes regulations on working hours, holidays, and benefits for the agricultural, livestock, and fisheries industries that had large numbers of migrant workers. Foreign laborers sometimes faced physical abuse and exploitation by employers in the form of longer working hours, fewer days off, and lower wages than their local counterparts. According to NGOs, the government only occasionally investigated reports of poor or abusive working conditions for migrants, and court cases were often dismissed due to insufficient evidence.

NGOs reported that although employers were prohibited from providing makeshift accommodations, some violated this prohibition, providing migrant workers with substandard accommodations made of plastic panels. After heavy rain led to the flooding of the Sanyang Reservoir in Gyeonggi Province in August, an estimated 100 persons were displaced, of whom 80 percent were migrant workers living in “plastic houses” while working on farms near the reservoir. Employers justified the accommodations, noting they lived there together with the workers and that the lodgings were only temporary to respond to busy work schedules. Workers’ rights advocates argued the plastic houses were illegal.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards and is responsible for monitoring industry adherence. Under the law workers in every sector have the right to remove themselves from situations of danger without jeopardizing their employment. As of July the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency, responsible for enforcement of these laws, had directly or indirectly inspected 299,081 workplaces. The penalties were commensurate with those for analogous crimes such as gross negligence.

In January broad reforms to the Occupational Safety and Health Act took effect. Some of the revisions included higher fines for workplace fatalities and increased penalties for health and safety violations. The revised regulations also prohibited companies from subcontracting out specific types of dangerous work, such as metal plating, that involve harmful heavy metals such as mercury and lead.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, there were 109,242 work-related accidents in 2019, an increase of 6.8 percent from 2018, and 2,020 occupational deaths, down from 2,142 in 2018. The agency’s director acknowledged that challenges remained in further reducing the level of fatal accidents to that on par with other advanced countries; ensuring the safety of workers vulnerable to occupational accidents and health risks, including older workers, women, migrants, and those working in small workplaces; and reducing safety gaps between large enterprises and small- and medium-sized enterprises, as well as between parent companies and subcontractors. Workers’ rights advocates said that contract or temporary workers were also vulnerable to workplace injury.

From September 2019 until May, five fatal accidents occurred at Hyundai Heavy Industries Co., one of the world’s largest shipbuilders. The Ministry of Employment and Labor determined the company lacked executive support for safety management, failed to abide by basic safety regulations, and did not properly educate employees about risks. After inspections in July, the ministry imposed a nominal fine of 152 million won ($131,000) for 165 safety violations.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future