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South Korea: Moon Should Uphold Rights at Home and Abroad

Time to Tackle Rights in Across Korean Peninsula and the Region

South Korea's president-elect Moon Jae-in celebrates at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, South Korea, May 9, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

(Seoul, May 9, 2017) – South Korean President Moon Jae-In should place human rights at the heart of his domestic and foreign policies, Human Rights Watch said today. Moon replaces President Park Geun-Hye, who was impeached in December 2016 and formally removed from office on March 10.

“The peaceful election of a new president following the peaceful demonstrations that brought down the Park government testifies to South Koreans’ commitment to human rights and democracy,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But President Moon needs to hit the ground running, and firmly commit to ensuring respect for human rights everywhere on the Korean peninsula, both north and south of the 38th parallel. There is a lot of work to be done on so many rights issues, such as safeguarding free expression, protecting labor rights, addressing discrimination against women and LGBT persons, and crafting a North Korean policy that addresses Pyongyang’s horrible human rights record.”  

A former student activist and human rights lawyer, Moon Jae-in is well positioned to take up human rights as a central policy of his administration, Human Rights Watch said. Since the end of the military dictatorship, South Korea has been an open and democratic society with a robust, yet often sharply polarized, discussion of human rights issues in both South Korea and North Korea. Overcoming that polarization will be a central challenge for his new government.  

In South Korea, rights challenges include promoting and protecting workers’ rights and ending harassment of trade union leaders, ensuring respect for human rights for people living with HIV, combatting anti-LGBT discrimination in the military and society, ending punitive abortion laws that endanger women’s lives, and reforming national security and criminal defamation laws that criminalize free expression and have long been used to silence critics and civil society. On March 31, 2017, Human Rights Watch formally submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council a memo on South Korea’s human rights record in advance of the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). South Korea’s right record will be considered under the UPR procedure in November 2017.

Previous South Korean governments have abused draconian criminal defamation laws to prosecute media and civil society activists who express or release information or views the government wishes to suppress. Human Rights Watch opposes all criminal defamation laws as a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations, and notes that such criminal laws inhibit freedom of expression to an extent incompatible with a democratic society.

South Korea will host the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic games in February 2018, just nine months away, and unions reported that there were failures to pay wages owed to workers. The new government should urgently investigate these claims. Trade unionists who have been arrested and imprisoned simply for peacefully exercising their rights of expression, association, and public assembly (including protests and strikes) should have their cases urgently reviewed by the new government.

Moon will need to take into account the enormous and ongoing human rights abuses of the North Korean government and respond to them urgently, Human Rights Watch said. The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report documented that the North Korean government has committed systematic human rights abuses on a scale and gravity without parallel in the contemporary world – including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. Any policy of engagement with North Korea should also include a strategy to achieve accountability for these abuses, as well as to obtain truthful answers from Pyongyang for families of South Korean and foreign nationals abducted in the past by North Korea.  

South Korea can and should redouble its efforts to press the Chinese government not to return refugees from North Korea to torture, forced labor, and imprisonment. Given their almost certain persecution if returned, Human Rights Watch considers North Koreans in China as refugees sur place whose rights China should protect. However, North Koreans fleeing are frequently apprehended by Chinese officials and too often forcibly returned, Human Rights Watch said.

“President Moon should insist that China treat North Koreans refugees humanely, and permit them to seek asylum or help them on the way to a third country where they can be protected,” said Robertson. “The new South Korean government should tell Beijing that returning North Koreans back into the clutches of Pyongyang is unacceptable because it condemns those refugees to certain torture, imprisonment and in some cases, death.”  

South Korea already plays a positive role on thematic human rights issues raised at the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly. In the region, South Korea should also play a leading role by making respect for human rights an important principle of the new government’s foreign policy, particularly in its bilateral relations with governments with troubling records on human rights. South Korea provides foreign aid through the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) to the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal, among other countries that have worrying policies and practices on human rights. South Korea can publicly and privately raise concerns about human rights issues in the context of its political dialogues with other governments on political and economic developments.

“President Moon should recognize that South Korea’s stature as economically modern and democratic nation gives him a bully pulpit to speak about human rights in the region,” said Robertson. “South Koreans are deservedly proud of their recent history of transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, and it is time the country plays a leadership role on human rights at home and in the region.” 

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