Protesters hold candles as they celebrate the impeachment of South Korea's ousted leader Park Geun-hye at a rally in Seoul, South Korea, March 11, 2017. 

© 2017 Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

(New York, January 18, 2018) – In 2017, South Korea experienced a tumultuous year that saw the election of a president who has promised to address long-standing human rights problems but still faces has an uphill fight to do so, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018. In May, South Korean voters elected Moon Jae-In, a former human rights lawyer and the leader of the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea.

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

“President Moon has ‘talked the talk’ on human rights, but speeches are not enough: now he needs to ‘walk the walk’ and follow through on his promises to make South Korea a more rights respecting country for all,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Moon’s election gives him a mandate to act to safeguard free expression and end discrimination against women and minorities, and to make South Korea a leader on human rights in all areas of the Korean peninsula and in the Asian region.” 

While South Korea has an open and democratic governing system with a free press and lively civil society, widespread discrimination against women and minorities remains a major problem, and discussion on human rights issues regarding the Korean peninsula is sharply polarized along political lines. Overcoming that polarization will be a major challenge for the Moon administration. The government has not adequately addressed issues of the human rights responsibilities of South Korean corporations in the country and overseas.

Successive South Korean governments and large corporations have used draconian criminal defamation laws, the national security law, and restrictive interpretations of other laws to chill critical scrutiny of powerful figures. Existing criminal defamation laws are used frequently, and provide penalties up to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine. The law focuses solely on whether what was said or written was in the public interest, and not whether it was factually true or not. Repeal of the criminal defamation law will be a key test of the Moon administration’s commitment to protect freedom of expression.

Discrimination against women, sexual minorities, racial and ethnic minorities, foreigners (especially refugees and migrant workers), and persons with HIV are all major human rights problems in South Korea. Gender-based stereotypes concerning the role of women in the family and society are common – including widespread social stigma and discrimination against unmarried mothers. This discrimination is often unchallenged or is even encouraged by the government. Abortion remains illegal, with fines against women seeking abortions and healthcare providers daring to provide them. South Korea’s national sex education curriculum reinforces discriminatory stereotypes and gender norms, and does not mention homosexuality.

“South Korean’s democracy will remain incomplete until the government acts to end discrimination and revokes laws that violate basic rights,” said Robertson. “President Moon should urgently lay out a comprehensive plan to eliminate human rights violations during his term, and enlist his government, and the South Korean people to join him in this historic mission.”