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South Korea

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

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 government authorization is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment under the NSL.

f. Protection of Refugees

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. 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.

In June the NHRCK and rights activists called for better treatment of asylum seekers at the airport. They noted for example that an Angolan couple and their four children had spent more than eight months in the departure area of Incheon Airport as of September. They arrived in December 2018 and requested refugee status, alleging torture and sexual abuse at the hands of Angolan police. In January the Incheon Airport Office of Immigration denied the family’s preliminary petition, based on a “clear absence of grounds for applying for refugee status, including a possible attempt to gain refugee status for purely economic reasons,” and disqualifying the family from formally applying for refugee status. Fearing for their lives if repatriated, the family filed a lawsuit to appeal the denial. They lost the appeal in April, but afterward filed additional appeals. A journalist who visited the family reported their condition was worsening and that they were surviving on food and daily essentials donated by departing passengers.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status.

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. Some NGOs focused on assisting North Korean defectors said their budget decreased by up to 80 percent from previous years due to cuts in government funding. In June the Ministry of Unification stated that overall spending on North Korean defectors had increased each year of the Moon administration, but that spending included the cost of administering the Hanawon centers that house and process newly arrived defectors, the government stipend provided to them, and all other related expenditures.

Justice ministry staffing of its 10 immigration offices increased from 39 refugee officers in 2018 to 94 officers as of September. NGOs had previously pointed to understaffing as a major obstacle to accommodating the rising number of refugee and asylum applications. Among cases completed from January through July, the MOJ stated the average time to complete the initial review of a refugee application fell to 12.3 months and for the second review fell to 11.3 months. The government operated refugee application counters at airports and harbors to allow asylum seekers to file applications for refugee status 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 or worried that interpreters were loyal to the very governments from which they sought protection. Applicants may receive a work permit six months after submitting an application that 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. In August a janitor found the bodies of a 42-year-old North Korean woman and her six-year-old son in Seoul. Police suspected they had died two months earlier. The family had lived in extreme poverty; there was no food in the refrigerator and the water had been shut off. A local social worker tasked with helping North Korean defectors said they had tried to contact the mother by telephone 10 months prior, but they did not follow up after the call went unanswered.

In July the government removed construction work from the list of approved jobs for asylum seekers whose cases are pending adjudication.

Most of the 552 Yemenis who sought asylum in Jeju in 2018 remained in the country. The government denied all except two asylum applications; however, it extended humanitarian stay permits to the majority of those refused. Approximately 400 of the Yemenis moved to the mainland after receiving their status. The Yemenis who remained in Jeju reported improving relationships with the island’s population. Those who moved to the mainland, however, were more likely to clash with employers and believed they needed to keep to themselves. In meetings throughout the year, police, immigration officials, Yemenis, and NGOs blamed inaccurate media reports for the public’s virulent opposition to the small number of Yemeni asylum seekers. In June an online newspaper suggested Yemeni refugees might be to blame for reddish tap water at an apartment complex, citing anonymous sources who said members of Houthi rebels might have poisoned the water.

Temporary Protection: Government guidelines offer renewable one-year short-term humanitarian status to those who do not qualify as “refugees” but 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. The MOJ reported that the government does not provide temporary refugee status.

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

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

As of July 2018, more than 2.3 million foreigners (including an estimated 330,000 undocumented migrants) lived in the country, which otherwise had a racially homogeneous population of approximately 51.4 million. The country lacks a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. In October, President Moon met with religious leaders and called for them to support the comprehensive antidiscrimination law. The National Assembly has been reluctant to take up the issue due to the outspoken opposition from powerful conservative Christian groups who wish to block the bill because of the LGBTI rights it would afford.

Societal discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities was common but underreported. A large majority of immigrants and naturalized citizens were female spouses, and they were reportedly often the victim of domestic violence. The NHRCK stated most of the foreign worker cases involved enforced eviction or mistreatment in detention centers when detained 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 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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