South Korea Table of Contents

Traditional Korean political thought, rooted in neoConfuciansism , placed some emphasis on benevolent rule and on the government's paternalistic responsibility to redress grievances of the population. These ideas were carried further in the nineteenth century by the Tonghak Movement (tonghak means Eastern Learning), which espoused equality of the sexes and of social classes. Interest among Koreans in modern human rights, however, and especially in civil and political rights protected by law, began late in the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) with the natural rights ideas of enlightenment movement (kaehwa) reformers, such as Kim Ok-kyun, So Chae-p'il, and Pak Yong-hyo.

The Japanese colonial period (1910-45) saw further diffusion of such ideas. In 1919 Koreans who had fled Japanese colonial rule established a government-in-exile in Shanghai that affirmed wide-ranging civil and political rights--freedoms of the ballot, religion, press, movement, property, and social and sexual equality. Within Korea in the 1920s, labor and tenant farmers unions spread the idea of rights and provided experience in organizational and protest techniques. As colonial rule continued, many Korean nationalists came to assume the desirability of a modern legal order and due process of law, especially while experiencing dual legal standards and abuses such as torture and fabrication of evidence in political cases. Koreans serving in the colonial police and receiving training in the Japanese Imperial Army often absorbed the increasingly stringent and authoritarian perspective of Japanese militarism.

Human rights performance did not immediately improve following the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule in 1945. Many factors--national division, ideological conflict, and violent confrontation even before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950--contributed to this problem. Japanese-style practices held over from the colonial days also were to blame. The United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48), confronted with serious problems of public order, found itself retaining the old colonial police apparatus and its Korean personnel. United States-sponsored legal reforms, such as an effort to institute habeas corpus in 1946, often failed; attempts by United States advisors to prevent South Korean police from using torture, especially in political cases, also were unsuccessful. Under Syngman Rhee, the South Korea continued the prewar pattern of using law and the police for political purposes--intimidating the judiciary, arresting journalists, and applying extralegal pressures against the teaching profession and members of the new National Assembly.

Under the presidencies of Park and Chun such problems worsened, and there were increasing signs of tension between the government and its supporters, who sought to ignore or minimize such rights and many South Koreans, including some even within the government, who believed that civil, legal, and political rights should be honored. This tension was evident in the affirmations of rights found in most of South Korea's postwar constitutions and especially in the government's need for increasingly stringent measures to control a restive judiciary under the yusin constitution. The forced resignations of judges and the resort to military tribunals in some political trials were justified on national security grounds, but only served to show that by the mid-1970s the government was, on such matters, no longer able to command the respect and cooperation of a significant part of the country's legal profession.

The Chun government modified some of the worst features of the yusin constitution, by removing the admissibility of confessions as evidence, for example, but continued most of the abusive police and judicial practices of the Park period with little change. Penal sentences for people found guilty of offenses under certain politically relevant laws--the National Security Act and the Act Concerning Assembly and Demonstration, for example--actually were harsher under Chun than under the preceding yusin system.

In addition to the growing disaffection of the legal profession in the 1970s and 1980s, South Korea's modernization had generated two social trends--rapid urbanization and dramatic increases in literacy and education levels--that were essential to industrialization, irreversible, and highly corrosive of traditional authoritarian practices. Public outrage against the police torture and killing of a student during an interrogation in early 1987 helped to fuel the growing political crisis that culminated in the tulmultuous events in June.

The agreement in late 1989 between opposition and government parties concerning the legacy of the Fifth Republic left unresolved the question of what the press and many politicians referred to as revision of akpop (evil laws). These were laws long used in South Korea to restrict and punish nonviolent political activity. The abolition in 1988 of one such law, the Basic Press Act of December 1980, had important and immediate effects on freedom of the press. Other laws remained on the statute books and were increasingly used in 1989 as the Roh administration reached the apparent limits of its willingness to tolerate dissent. Despite Roh's initial reputation for moderation, police records reported in the press show that by late 1989 the Roh government had more than doubled the Chun administration's rate of arrests for political offenses.

As measured in numbers of persons under investigation, standing trial, or serving sentences, the Act Concerning Assembly and Demonstration continued under Roh, as under the Fifth Republic, to be the law most frequently used to restrict and control nonviolent political expression. The law gave police chiefs, of whom there were twenty-four in Seoul alone, the authority to deny permission, without appeal, for any proposed demonstration. Police also had wide discretion over treatment of participants in illegal demonstrations, determining whether a given participant was to be charged with sponsoring an illegal demonstration, which carried the threat of a seven-year prison term, or with varying degrees of participation, which could be punished as a misdemeanor or even with a simple warning. Police had on occasion taken actions under the law to prevent persons from attending meetings that the police believed were "likely to breed social unrest."

The National Security Act, as amended in 1980, restricted "antistate activities" that endangered "the state or the lives and freedom of the citizenry." However, Seoul used the law not only against espionage or sabotage, but also to control and punish domestic dissent, such as the publication of unorthodox political commentary, art, or literature, on the grounds that such expressions benefited an "antistate organization." In divided Korea, almost any act of opposition to the South Korean government could be and has been characterized as benefiting North Korea. Arrests under the law have been made for a wide variety of actions, including the sale of cassette tapes containing antigovernment songs; the sale, possession, or reading of books and other publications on the government's banned list; or chanting anti-American slogans at a student rally. Ordinary procedural protections of the Code of Criminal Procedure were not provided for defendants for offenses under this law. Any liaison with antistate organizations was also punishable under the law, although in the late 1980s there was considerable debate concerning the government's selectivity in allowing some politicians and businessmen to travel to North Korea or meet with North Korean officials while severely punishing critics of the government who did the same thing. There was a surge in prosecutions for various offenses under the National Security Act in 1989, despite continuing talk of amending the law to facilitate broader contacts with the north. In early 1990, as the third year of Roh's administration began and as the government mulled over plans to sign several international agreements concerning human rights, it was still unclear whether or when the promise of Roh's 1988 inaugural speech, that "the day when freedoms and human rights could be slighted in the name of economic growth and national security has ended," would be redeemed.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress