A closer look at human rights in the Korean Peninsula

Reuben James Barrete
A closer look at human rights in the Korean Peninsula
It's time for human rights groups to encourage the government of South Korea to examine its repressive laws

When we talk about human rights in the context of the Korean Peninsula, international media organizations and transnational human rights groups project by default the issue of human rights violations and curtailment of freedom to North Korea alone.

This significantly situates the country as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in modern times. These include extermination, murder, slavery, torture, arbitrary arrest, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. North Korea also operates prison camps where perceived opponents of the regime are sent to face torture and other forms of abuses. Collective punishment is used to silence dissent. The absence of independent media, civil society, and freedom of religion are also observed.

In 2016, an American college student, Otto Warmbier spent 17 months in detention for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. The Korean regime claimed that he contracted botulism and was never tortured. Unfortunately, he died a few days after he was released in coma.

The regime, however, never ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. And even if it did with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR), Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and Convention on the Rights of the Child – it still fails in periodic reports.

Nevertheless, as we put significant attention to these cases of human rights violations in the North, we can have a holistic understanding of human rights in the peninsula by also taking a closer look at political rights violations in South Korea in the context of dissent against its government. South Korea, after all, claims to be a democratic state.

According to Amnesty International, one of the most important human rights issue in South Korea continues to be the National Security Law, which is used arbitrarily to curtail freedom of expression and association, providing long sentences or the death penalty for loosely defined “anti-state” activities.

The human rights discourse in the peninsula illustrates that human rights violations against democratic freedoms also exist in South Korea. These, however, happen based on varying and distinctive socio-political differences of the two Koreas, and their shared common factors.

Worrying trend

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that there is a worrying trend of increased arbitrary use of the National Security Law (NSL) in South Korea since 2008 by law enforcement agencies, in the name of security and public safety. This undermines citizens’ right to freedom of association and freedom of speech.

Data showed that the number of NSL cases increased by 95.6% from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011. The figure of those charged under the “vaguely worded clauses” of the law significantly increased by 96.8% – from 32 in 2008 to 63 in 2011.

These data show that the South Korean government, through the NSL, has been justifying the act of arbitrary arrests of individuals by imposing clauses of the law in the name of security. In one particular case, members of the Socialist Workers League were investigated under the abovementioned law and found guilty on the grounds of violating NSL Article 7(1) “propagating or instigating a rebellion against the State” even if the members conducted a peaceful protest. They were imprisoned for two years and suspended for 3 years.

Also in the case of Kim Myeong-soo, the NSL has been used as reference to curb academic debate on the study of North Korean issues. He was a bookseller and a PhD student questioned for selling 140 books and possessing 170 others “with the intention of endangering the existence and security of the State”. In his testimony, he mentioned that the books used as substantial evidence against him during the trail are materials for anyone who studies North Korea or North Korean literature like any other scholars. In 2012, Kim Myeong-soo was sentenced to 6 months in prison and two years’ suspension, prompting him to abandon his doctoral thesis.

The human rights situation in South Korea might be incomparable in terms of practice, but it only shows that South Korea’s government has been using state-enforced and strict security legislations as mechanisms to justify its violations in order to protect its security interests.

The absence of institutionalized human rights protection policies in North Korea and South Korea’s stringent security legislation provide a space for the further curtailment of human rights in the peninsula.

It is important to recognize that both countries, in the absence of reunification, want to preserve and protect their respective ideological and political standing against each other. Thus, both Koreas possess distinct security concerns and interests that would prevent them from deviating from the status quo.

Undoubtedly, both countries are ready to facilitate repressive tools in order to protect their survival from any external threats.

It is high time for human rights groups to also encourage the government of South Korea to examine the need to modify repressive clauses of the National Security Law, and take a holistic approach in tackling the discourse of human rights in the Korean Peninsula. – Rappler.com


Reuben James Barrete is a development worker focusing on human rights and social protection. He is finishing his master’s degree in International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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