Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 6 (Fall 1996): The Human Rights Discourse in East Asia: Reports from the Region: Articles: SOUTH KOREA

Sep 5, 1996

The state of civil and political rights in Korea has improved significantly over the last several years. Torture, in the most inhuman and brutal forms for which past military regimes were notorious, seems to have almost, if not entirely, disappeared. However, no comparable and credible effort has yet been made to elevate economic and social rights in Korea. This is particularly evident when tracking the rights of socially marginalized populations, such as unorganized manual workers, women, children, and prisoners. The situation of foreign workers in Korea also demands attention, as does the improper and deleterious use of the National Security Law during the last few years.

These observations guided the selection of human rights writings treated in this review. In terms of their relevance, substance, seriousness, informational value, timeliness, and practical appeal, each of the issues addressed in the writings deserves greater attention. Together the writings suggest what must be done to further improve the human rights situation in Korea.

"Issues Concerning Foreign Workers in Korea" ("Han guk nae Oegugin illyok sanghwang-ui munje-wa ku teach aek") by Hae-Sung Kim [October 25, 1995. Paper presented at the Public Hearing for the Legislation of a Foreign Workers Protection Act organized by the Joint Committee for the October Event for the Protection of the Human Rights of Foreign Workers held in Seoul.]

This essay is not only informative but also moving. As the director of the Shelter for Foreign Workers in the Seongham City Area, Rev. Hae-Sung Kim is actively involved in foreign workers rights. In Korea today there are roughly 170,000 foreign workers from less-developed countries who work so called 3D jos—dirty, dangerous, and difficult—in small companies notorious for poor working conditions. Foreign workers in Korea are either illegal visitors who are not permitted to work or legal visitors who can be formally employed as industrial trainees. Due to the low wages paid to them, however, these trainees often run away and risk becoming illegal workers in order to gain better-paying positions. According to Rev. Kim, "almost all foreign workers in Korea have not been paid properly for their work. Many of them were not paid for five to six months or even for two years. But they had no one to turn to because they were illegal workers." Likewise, he vividly illustrates how employers mistreat workers and try to prevent them from running away. Despite sit-in protests by the foreign workers and mounting public pressure, the Korean government seems ill-prepared to resolve this pressing human rights problem.

"Police Attitudes Toward Battered Women: An Analysis of the Counseling Cases at the Women's Hotline in Seoul during the First Half of 1996" ("Kut a Yosong taeung pangsik-kwa kyongch al-ui t aedo") by Hye-Sun Kim in Through Women's Eyes (Yosong-ui nun-uro), July–August, 1996.

This timely and pertinent article appearing in the journal of the Korean Women's Hotline reflects the increased concern of Korean feminists for battered women. The recent case of a mother who killed her son-in-law for beating her daughter shows vividly the seriousness of domestic violence. According to Dr. Kim's analysis, almost 30 percent of the telephone counseling cases by the Korean Women's Hotline during the first half of 1996 were concerned with battering. A questionnaire survey of 307 women revealed that less than 3 percent of battered women tried to call the police. Dr. Kim argues that the low reporting rate for abuse results at least partially from police attitudes and reliance on family mediation rather than arrest as the mode of intervention. Dr. Kim therefore advocates the passing of the Domestic Violence Prevention Act, legislation demanded by women's organizations. She calls for the reeducation of police to change their attitudes toward domestic violence, arguing that more aggressive police intervention would have the practical effect of controlling abusive situations and the symbolic effect of criminalizing domestic violence.

"The Rights of the Child in the Republic of Korea" ("Han guk ch ongsonyon inkwon") by Ki-Bum Lee, 1995.

Prepared by the Korean NGO Coalition for the Rights of Children for the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Children on November 22, 1995, this highly suggestive essay deals with the rights of children in Korea. The application of the "public" notion of human rights to children is progressive, given the traditional Korean perception that women and children belong to the "private" sphere. With regard to the social welfare rights of children, the author cites limited spending on social security as cause for the lack of a child-allowance system and inadequate day-care systems and child-care programs. To better protect children against abuse, Lee argues that the current Child Welfare Act, which has no detailed regulations for its application, is inadequate, and that a legal system should be established to enable intervention by an authorized person in cases of child abuse.

"Status Report on the Human Rights Situation in Prisons, 1995" ("Kushipo nyondo kyodoso inkwon shilt ae pogoso"). Mingahyup Human Rights Group, 1996.

This essay draws attention to human rights within Korean prisons. Presented at the 11th General Meeting of the Mingahyup Human Rights Group, a well-known activist group in Korea, the report makes recommendations for improved prison conditions, namely an end to overcrowding. On average, 1,00 inmates are placed in each Korean prison, which is three times higher than the optimum number cited in the United Nations Minimum Criteria Rules for the Treatment of the Incarcerated (1957). This essay argues effectively that coercing and intimidating inmates, as well as any restrictions and physical punishment beyond incarceration, represent an infringement of basic human rights as stated in Article 5 of the United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prison Inmates (1990).

"Human Rights Suffocated by the Logic of National Security" ("Kukka anho Nolli-e chilshiktoen inkwon") by Rae-Gun Park in Human Rights Newsletter #5 (Inkwon haru soshik happon 5). Sarangbang Center for Human Rights, 1996.

This article addresses the National Security Law, arguably the most repressive anti–human rights law that exists in now democratic Korea. International human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and the United Nations, along with the U.S. State Department, have asked for a revision of this law. There is nothing particularly new in this argument. What seems most problematic is the fact that the present civilian regime tends to utilize this law as much as, or even more than, past authoritarian regimes to control certain radical movements. The key point raised by the author, and supported by statistics, is that the government uses this law for its own political purposes rather than for national security. The article underscores the regrettable fact that the National Security Law, as a meta-constitutional law, continues to be applied by a civilian government to censor the thoughts and expressions of citizens, thereby obstructing the construction of a genuinely liberal and pluralist democratic society.

The reviewer, Sangjin Han, is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. His research, which often relies on survey data, focuses on the democratic transition in South Korea. He is a member of several international and Korean academic associations and in 1992 was a visiting professor at Columbia University. In addition, he serves as a principle adviser to the Kim Dae Jung Foundation, which works to promote democracy and human rights in Asia.

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