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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 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.

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.

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.

Trafficking in Persons

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

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.

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