Republic of Korea
The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is a constitutional democracy governed by a president and a unicameral legislature. Observers considered the presidential election in May and legislative elections in 2016 free and fair. Moon Jae-in was elected president in an early election following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces.
The most significant human rights issues included: government interpretation and application of the National Security Law, libel laws, and other laws that limited freedom of expression and restricted internet access; corruption; domestic violence; and the military’s prosecution of male soldiers for homosexual activities, although the new government discontinued such action.
The government took steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses. A degree of impunity for corruption charges was a concern.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and domestic violence. The police generally respond promptly and appropriately to reported incidents, and the judicial system effectively enforced the law. However, domestic violence was a significant, yet underreported problem. Both government and NGO surveys indicated that it occurs in about approximately 50 percent of households.
Although no specific statute defines spousal rape as illegal, the Supreme Court acknowledged marital rape as illegal. The penalty for rape ranges from a minimum of three years’ to life imprisonment depending on the specific circumstances. Authorities effectively investigated and prosecuted rape, although in some cases victims dropped charges against perpetrators after reaching a financial settlement with the alleged perpetrator.
Multiple NGOs reported that sexual assault was a serious and underreported problem in the military.
The law defines domestic violence as a serious crime and authorizes authorities to order offenders to stay away from victims for up to six months. This order may be extended up to two years. Offenders may be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and fined up to seven million won ($6,030) for domestic violence offenses. Noncompliance with domestic violence restraining orders may result in a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a fine of up to 20 million won ($17,230). Authorities may also place 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.
Domestic violence occurred in 45.6 percent of all families, according to 2015 statistics (the most recent available) from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The Women’s Human Rights Commission reported a higher 53.3 percent. According to an August report by the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the emergency hotline for violence against women in 2015 increased by 15.6 percent from the same period in 2014. The number of cases of reported violence in nonmarital relationships increased by 31.7 percent.
Footage of a man hitting and kicking his former girlfriend before chasing her down a street in central Seoul with a truck in July triggered a police 100-day action campaign to combat violence against women. The Korean Institute of Criminology stated that the assault in broad daylight in the capital, while extreme, was not an isolated incident of abuse. The Institute conducted a study, based on responses from 2,000 men, which found that 80 percent had physically or psychologically abused a girlfriend while they were dating.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family funded 38 integrated support centers and 104 smaller counseling centers nationwide for victims of sexual violence called “sunflower centers,” providing counseling, medical care and therapy, case investigations, and legal assistance.
The law allows judges or a Ministry of Justice committee to sentence repeat sex offenders to chemical castration. In the first half of the year, 14 chemical castrations were performed.
The 2015 agreement with Japan on World War II “comfort women” (women trafficked for sexual purposes) remained controversial with some domestic and foreign civil society and survivor groups. In July, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha instructed a civilian task force to review the 2015 comfort women agreement between South Korea and Japan. The independent task force’s nonbinding report, released December 27, raised concerns about the contents of the 2015 agreement and the process by which it was negotiated, particularly the lack of “adequate efforts” to include the views of the comfort women victims.
Sexual Harassment: The law obligates companies and organizations to take preventive measures against sexual harassment, and the government generally enforced the law effectively (see section 7.d.). The KNPA classifies sexual harassment as “indecent acts by compulsion.” There were numerous cases of sexual harassment reported in the media throughout the year.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods. Estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence are available at: .
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights under the constitution as men. The law provides for equal pay for equal work, but the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed the gender pay gap was 37.2 percent in 2015 (see section 7.d.).
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. In 2016 the Ministry for Health and Welfare reported a 59 percent increase in confirmed child abuses cases compared to 2015, attributing this to a public education campaign and expanded reporting requirements. The Ministry for Health and Welfare operated 60 child protection agencies and 63 shelters to treat and protect victims of child abuse and ran programs for families designed to prevent reoccurrence. The government maintains a 24-hour online counseling center for victims of child abuse.
Several cases of severe child abuse were reported in the media during the year.
Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for men and women to marry is 18. There were no reported cases of forced marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 13. It is illegal to deceive or pressure anyone under 19 into having sexual intercourse. Children, however, were vulnerable to sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation through online recruitment or recruitment of runaway girls.
The penalty for rape of a minor under 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. Other penalties include electronic monitoring of offenders, public release of their personal information, and reversible hormonal treatment (chemical castration).
The law prohibits child pornography. Offenders who produce or possess it for the purpose of selling, renting, or distributing it for profit are subject to a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. In addition, any possessor of child pornography may be fined up to 20 million won ($17,230).
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 travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
The country has a small Jewish population consisting almost entirely of expatriates. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law covering rights and support for the developmentally disabled 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 laws and programs to facilitate access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. Many local government ordinances and regulations still directly discriminate against persons with disabilities, especially those with intellectual and mental disabilities, according to media reports and NGOs. The National Human Rights Commission reported it had received multiple reports of discrimination against persons with disabilities.
The law establishes penalties for deliberate discrimination of up to three years in prison and a fine of 30 million won ($25,840). The Ministry of Health and Welfare continued to implement a comprehensive set of policies that included encouraging public and private buildings and facilities to provide barrier-free access, providing part time employment, and employing a task force to introduce a long-term care system. The government operated rehabilitation hospitals in six regions and a national rehabilitation research center to increase opportunities and access for persons with disabilities.
The government provided a pension system for registered adults and children with disabilities, an allowance for children with disabilities under age 18 whose household income was below or near the National Basic Livelihood Security Standard, and a disability allowance for low-income persons age 18 and older with mild disabilities.
Children with disabilities qualified as special education beneficiaries and there was a separate system of public special education schools for children from age three to 17. Children with more significant disabilities may receive hospitalized education. All public and private schools, childcare centers, educational facilities, and training institutions must provide equipment and other resources to accommodate students with disabilities.
As of November, more than 2.1 million foreigners (including an estimated 250,000 undocumented migrants) lived in the country, which otherwise had a racially homogeneous population of approximately 50.9 million. The country lacks a comprehensive antidiscrimination law, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism called for legislation to curb racism and xenophobia.
Societal discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities was common but underreported. The NHRC stated that most of the cases with foreign workers involved enforced eviction or mistreatment when detained in protection centers for foreign workers on charges of violating immigration laws.
Some children of immigrants suffered from discrimination and lack of access to social resources. Some children of non-Korean ethnicity or multiple ethnicities also experienced bullying because of their physical appearance.
In response to the steady growth of ethnic minorities due largely to the increasing number of migrant workers and foreign brides, the Ministries of Gender Equality and Family and of Employment and Labor continued programs to increase public awareness of cultural diversity and to assist foreign workers, wives, and multicultural families to adjust to life in the country.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The Ministry of Justice reported the constitution’s equality principles apply to LGBTI persons. The law that established the NHRC prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and authorizes the NHRC to review cases of such discrimination, but the law does not specify discrimination based on gender identity. The Military Criminal Act’s “disgraceful conduct” clause criminalizes consensual sodomy between men in the military with up to two years’ imprisonment; in July the Constitutional Court ruled that the clause was constitutional.
In May the General Military Court sentenced a gay soldier to six months in prison and a one year suspended sentence for having consensual same-sex intercourse with another soldier. He was among 40-50 soldiers investigated in an effort to target gay soldiers in the army by the army chief of staff.
No laws either specify punishment for persons found to discriminate against LGBTI persons or provide for remedies to victims of discrimination or violence. During the first half of the year, the NHRC reported two cases of such alleged discrimination.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The law protects the right to confidentiality of persons with HIV/AIDS and prohibits discrimination against them. However, observers claimed persons with HIV/AIDS continued to suffer from societal discrimination and social stigma.