South Korea

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 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.

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