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South Korea

Events of 2023

A rainbow banner is held aloft during the Seoul Queer Culture Festival in Seoul, South Korea, July 1, 2023.

© AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

The Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) is a democracy that largely respects the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of its citizens. However, several human rights concerns remain, including pervasive and systemic discrimination against women and girls; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; racial minorities; migrants; older people; and people with disabilities. South Korea remains one of the few Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries without an anti-discrimination law.

In 2023, activists raised concerns about the erosion of the rights to freedom of assembly and association as the government cracked down on disability rights demonstrations, labor union protests, and LGBT parades and festivals. President Yoon Suk-yeol pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MoGEF) in a move that activists have called state-sponsored anti-feminism in the face of widespread discrimination and violence against women and girls. The government did not develop a fourth National Action Plan, a comprehensive blueprint on human rights, for 2023-2028.

Over the past year, Yoon strengthened the government’s promotion of human rights in North Korea. A South Korean court ruled in February that a same-sex couple should receive the same National Health Insurance Service benefits as a heterosexual couple, recognizing the rights of a same-sex couple for the first time.

Following a string of violent crimes in July and August, the minister of justice called for the maintenance of execution facilities at correctional facilities across the country. While South Korea has not carried out an execution since 1997, 59 people still remain on death row. The government has not abolished the death penalty.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

The Economist magazine’s “Glass Ceiling Index,” which assesses women’s educational attainment, women in managerial positions, and maternal leave policies, gave South Korea the lowest rank among OECD member countries in 2023.

The government struggled to address digital sex crimes, including the widespread posting of pictures of women and girls without their consent. According to a report released in March by the MoGEF, digital sex crimes targeting children increased between 2019 and 2021. In June, the government’s Sexual Violence Safety Survey found that 51 percent of 7,505 women surveyed worry about becoming victims of sexual violence while using public bathrooms or taking taxis alone. 

In February, South Korea’s Ministry of Justice shot down the MoGEF’s plans to revise the legal definition of rape to include nonconsensual sex. South Korean courts have interpreted the penal code very narrowly, often ruling in favor of the perpetrator when there are “mitigating circumstances” such as inebriation. 

In October, the National Assembly passed the Protected Birth Bill that promotes anonymous births and adoption or orphanage care as solutions to unregistered births and unwanted pregnancies. Women’s rights groups opposed the bill, saying it failed to address the underlying reasons that drive women not to register births, including lack of access to safe abortions, lack of comprehensive sexuality education, inadequate support services for pregnant women and girls, and the stigma of single motherhood.

Freedom of Expression

Though South Korea has a free press and a diverse civil society, the government uses the country’s criminal defamation laws to limit scrutiny of its actions. Convictions for criminal defamation are not based on whether what was said was true, but whether it was in the “public interest,” and they can result in up to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine.

South Korea’s draconian National Security Law (NSL) criminalizes the dissemination of materials alleged to be North Korean propaganda and statements thought to praise North Korea and has effectively restricted South Koreans’ access to North Korean media. In January, the National Intelligence Service and the police raided the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, alleging that some of its members had violated the NSL. 

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity 

In May, Seoul’s city government blocked the organizers of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival from holding its annual pride parade at its usual location in front of City Hall and gave the lot to a vocally homophobic Christian organization. Despite the opposition, over 150,000 people attended the event in July in Seoul’s Euljiro neighborhood, according to the organizers.

In June, lawmakers proposed legislation that would extend the right to marry to same-sex couples. Another proposed bill would create civil unions as an alternative to marriage.

Policy on Human Rights in North Korea

Though the government has yet to establish the North Korean Human Rights Foundation as stipulated by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016, Yoon reiterated his commitment to its terms. In March, the Ministry of Unification publicly released its annual report on the human rights situation in North Korea for the first time, which Yoon referenced in his address to the US Congress in April. He stressed the collective responsibility to “inform the world of the gravity of North Korea’s human rights violations.”

In December 2022, South Korea co-sponsored the annual resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning North Korean human rights violations and the Human Rights Council resolution on North Korea in April 2023.

In September, South Korea’s Constitutional Court overturned a 2020 law amendment that prohibited sending leaflets, information, money and other items from South Korea into North Korea, calling the ban an excessive restriction on free speech. This decision followed complaints from activist groups, including North Korean escapees living in South Korea, that the restrictions were vague and punishments excessive and that the law prevented activists from sending information to North Korea.

Workers’ Rights 

The South Korean government has not ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention (C190), which would require it to implement measures to end harassment and violence in the workplace. In June, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions met with the ILO in Geneva to voice concerns that President Yoon had been suppressing labor movements.

Disability Rights 

In December 2022 and January 2023, the Seoul Metro and police officers prevented activists with Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD) from demonstrating on the subway for an increased government budget to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Following the crackdown, the Seoul Metro filed a damages suit against SADD for 601.45 million won (about US$484,000). 

Key International Actors 

President Yoon has prioritized strategic relations with Japan despite public backlash caused by historical resentment surrounding Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula. In August, President Yoon met with United States President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David, the first trilateral meeting of its kind. The three countries agreed to cooperate to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats and condemned acts of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea but failed to mention the issue of human rights in North Korea. Economically, China is South Korea’s top trading partner

In July, President Yoon pledged to provide military supplies, not just financial and humanitarian aid, to Ukraine, reversing an earlier decision to only provide non-lethal supplies. South Korea also plans to increase its total financial aid to Ukraine to 250 billion won (about $394 million). These policies are expected to further worsen relations with North Korea, one of Russia’s allies.

In June, South Korea was elected to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the 2024-2025 term.