South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks about nuclear negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a meeting with his aides at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, April 15, 2019.  © 2019 Bae Jae-man/Yonhap via AP
(Seoul) – In 2019, the South Korean government prioritized diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over human rights advocacy, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2020. The government did a poor job protecting the rights of its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population and other at-risk groups.
 
South Korea has a generally open and democratic system of government with a relatively free media and civil society, but serious problems persist with discrimination and abuses against women, sexual minorities, refugees, and other at-risk groups. President Moon Jae-in has not done enough to address these persistent problems.
 
“President Moon Jae-in, who started his legal career fighting for human rights, is in several ways failing to promote them now,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “In 2020, he and his government need to reverse course and prioritize human rights in South Korea, North Korea, and worldwide.”
 
In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.
 
In 2019, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse gained ground in South Korea and reached political elites and entertainment stars. A former senior prosecutor was sentenced to two years in prison for sexually harassing a colleague, and a former governor was sentenced to over three years for rape. Two former K-Pop stars were convicted of raping several intoxicated women, with one of the stars filming and distributing footage of the assault.
 
In April, in a positive development, South Korea’s Constitutional Court decriminalized abortion.
 
South Korea’s LGBT movement strengthened but continued to face pressure from conservative Christian anti-LGBT groups. Seoul’s 20th pride parade in June had record participation, with approximately 70,000 people attending. But a pride parade in Busan was cancelled in August because of a dispute with local authorities over permits. Hundreds who gathered in Incheon in August for a Queer Culture Festival, which the year before had been attacked and broken up by anti-LGBT groups, were again surrounded by thousands of sometimes violent protesters and required a massive deployment of over 3,000 police officers for events to proceed.
 
The administration has not clearly articulated its policy on North Korea’s human rights issues. President Moon did not raise human rights when he met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in February 2019, in keeping with his approach in earlier meetings with Kim in 2017 and 2018, and in a troubling move in October Moon’s government deported two North Korean fishermen to face murder charges in North Korea, where they most likely face torture and execution. In November, the government dropped its traditional co-sponsoring of a resolution condemning North Korea’s horrific rights record at the United Nations General Assembly.
 
“President Moon needs to abandon his flawed North Korea policy, which is based on the hope that overlooking Pyongyang’s crimes will increase inter-Korean engagement and dialogue,” Sifton said. “The North Korean government is never going to improve its human rights record unless the world demands it, and South Korea needs to lead the rallying cry for that to happen.”