While the Republic of Korea (South Korea) broadly respects the rights of its citizens, there are significant human rights concerns, especially regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, women, migrants, racial minorities, older people, and people with disabilities. Before former President Moon Jae-in left office in May, his administration failed to pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination law to provide protection for these groups, despite strong public support for the draft law.
South Korea’s public health measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 raised serious privacy concerns when the government announced it would test AI facial recognition technology to track the spread of the disease.
In August, large-scale flooding in Seoul disproportionately affected low-income residents living in semi-basement apartments (banjiha), bringing greater attention to prevailing economic inequalities in the country.
Discrimination against women and girls is pervasive. In May, the candidate of the People Power Party, Yoon Suk-yeol, won the presidency. His campaign included appeals to anti-feminist male voters that included blaming feminism for the decline in birthrate (which now hovers around 0.81, the lowest in the world), pledging to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (which promotes women’s rights and combats domestic violence), promising to enhance punishments for false accusations of sexual violence, and claiming there is no systemic gender discrimination in South Korea. At time of writing, the government was still discussing how to carry out the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
The Economist magazine’s “Glass Ceiling Index,” which assesses women’s educational attainment, women in managerial positions, and number of female parliamentarians, gives South Korea the lowest rank among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries. The survey found that women earn 38 percent less than their male counterparts and that the country has the highest proportion of women working temporary jobs in the OECD.
The government continues to struggle to address rampant problems with digital sex crimes. In December 2021, new legislation passed by the National Assembly went into effect. This legislation, collectively known as the “Anti-Nth Room” laws, is an attempt to combat an uptick in digital sex crimes by strengthening punishments against offenders and holding internet service providers responsible for illegal content distributed on their systems. However, sex crime chat rooms remain hard to regulate, and in September, reports surfaced of new Telegram chat rooms, similar to the Nth Room, which were circulating pornographic deepfake content. The government has failed to take steps beyond the criminal legal system to address digital sex crimes, such as prevention through education and changing social norms, providing civil remedies, and expanding services for people targeted by digital sex crimes.
While the Constitutional Court of Korea decriminalized abortion in 2021, the National Assembly has yet to pass legislation to clarify how and where South Korean women can obtain legal abortions. The lack of legislation on abortion hinders providers and compromises women’s right to health care.
Freedom of Expression
Though South Korea has a free press and a lively civil society, the government and large corporations use the country’s criminal defamation laws to limit scrutiny of their actions. Convictions for criminal defamation are based only on whether what was said is in “the public interest,” not its verity, and can result in up to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine.
On September 15, the Constitutional Court started a review, following 11 petitions filed by individuals and district courts, of the National Security Act, which aims to ensure state security but has been used to criminalize positive comments about North Korea or dissemination of materials alleged to be North Korean propaganda. The law imposes significant restrictions on South Koreans' right to access information about North Korea. It also criminalizes acts to join, praise, or induce others to join an unclearly defined “anti-government organization,” a broad term that is not defined in the law.
The Education Ministry failed to act following reports that it had recommended unsafe online learning products for children’s use during the Covid-19 pandemic. These products, two of which were built by the government, transmitted children’s personal data to advertising technology companies, enabling them to track and target children across the internet for advertising purposes.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Discrimination against LGBT people remains pervasive in South Korea. In July, Seoul celebrated its first LGBT Pride parade in three years, which was attended by an estimated 13,000 people. An additional 15,000 anti-LGBT protesters also showed up to protest the marchers.
In the district elections held in Seoul in June, Cha Hae-young, a 35-year-old bisexual politician and LGBT rights activist, became the first openly LGBT elected official in South Korea.
In April, the Supreme Court of Korea overturned the military convictions of two gay soldiers who had been prosecuted for same-sex conduct under Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act. Although the court did not rule the provision unconstitutional, its decision set a precedent that should protect other soldiers who engage in same-sex activity.
In January, a South Korean court ruled against a gay couple who had registered for spousal health insurance benefits, asserting that there was no legal justification for expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex partnerships.
Policy on Human Rights in North Korea
Since taking office, Yoon has strengthened the government’s promotion of human rights in North Korea. In July, South Korea appointed Lee Shin-hwa to the long vacant position of special ambassador for North Korean human rights. Yoon’s administration pledged to formally establish the North Korean Human Rights Foundation, an important institution created through the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016. However, at time of writing, the government had yet to do so.
In June, prosecutors opened an investigation into the forced repatriation of two North Korean fisherman who had been apprehended off the coast of South Korea in 2019. The two men, whose identities were revealed by lawmakers in September, faced torture, forced labor, and possible execution when they were involuntarily returned without fair process.
In May, after North Korea officially announced a Covid-19 outbreak, Yoon stated that South Korea was prepared to send humanitarian aid to North Korea, including medicine and Covid-19 vaccines, and in September, his administration proposed a meeting with North Korean officials to discuss the possibility of reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
South Korea’s ratifications of three core conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) — No. 29 on forced labor, No. 87 on freedom of association, and No. 98 on the right to organize and collective bargaining—entered into force in April.
However, the government has not ratified Convention No. 190, which requires ratifying states to implement measures to end harassment and violence in the workplace. According to the result of a survey conducted by Gapjil 119, a hotline that offers legal advice to workers facing harassment, nearly 29 percent of South Korean workers face abuse at work. However, there has been a growing social movement against employers’ abuse of power, verbal and physical bullying, and failing to pay workers on time.
In September, the National Assembly debated a bill that would limit employers from seeking damages for losses incurred during strikes.
Key International Actors
South Korea provided more than $560 million annually in foreign aid primarily to countries around the world via the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) but did little to raise human rights issues publicly or privately in foreign policy or development aid consultations despite pledges by Yoon in his inaugural speech to protect freedom and human rights.
South Korea is a major diplomatic ally of the United States. Economically, its largest trading partner is China, which purchases more than 25 percent of South Korea’s exports. However, in October, South Korea supported an initiative at the UN Human Rights Council to discuss a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on possible crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang region of China. The same month, South Korea also co-sponsored the annual resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning North Korean human rights violations, which it had been unwilling to sponsor since 2019. Under Yoon, South Korea has moved to repair relations with Japan that frayed significantly during the rule of former President Moon.