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 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.
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
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
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.