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Third periodic report dated 27 September 1995 and fourth periodic report dated 30 March 1998

The Republic of Korea (ROK) is a mountainous country with a population of 45.6 million. Korean society is highly homogenous; non-Koreans only constitute 0.1 percent of the population. The country is approximately twenty seven percent Buddhist, 18.6 percent Protestant, and 5.7 percent Catholic. The legacy of Confucianism prevails as a cultural influence.

Rapid industrialization since the 1960s has turned Korea into a highly urbanized and industrialized country. Until the 1997 economic crisis, Korea had been hailed as an example of economic success under conservative political rule. However, significant disparities persist between conditions in urban and rural areas, particularly in respect to quality of social services and medical care. Medical facilities and staffing remain inadequate in rural areas.

The recent presidential victory of veteran democracy-campaigner Kim Dae Jung is a good omen for human rights and democracy in ROK. However, the current economic crisis provides both opportunity and excuse for limitations on citizens' rights; the future of Korea in this climate is uncertain.

Government and Politics

Having won the ROK's presidential election in December 1997 on his fourth attempt, Kim Dae Jung of the National Congress for New Politics party (NCNP) took office on 25 February 1998. It is the first time that an opposition politician has taken the presidency from the business and military elite that had ruled Korea under various party names since the Korean War (1950-1953). The 74-year-old president has pledged to carry out three major tasks: restructure the ravaged economy, reform the scandal-rocked political institutions and pursue reconciliation with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.1

Though seasoned in politics, the new president has significant challenges to meet. First of all, the opposition party - the Grand National Party (GNP) - holds 161 seats in the 299-member National Assembly.2 GNP is the new name of the former ruling party, the Korean National Party (KNP). The nature of this coalition will create difficulty for Kim Dae Jung in the National Assembly. On the day of the inauguration, the GNP-controlled National Assembly boycotted a vote on the new president's nominee for prime minister, Kim Jong Pil, and Kim Dae Jung had to begin his presidency without a cabinet.

Another limitation on the new president's ability to move his own program is the role of the conservative political veteran Kim Jong Pil. Kim Jong Pil heads the United Liberal Democrats. His support was crucial for Kim Dae Jung's presidential victory. Though Kim Dae Jung is personally popular among the Korean masses, he had been an outsider to the power network of the country's elite. His major opponent, Lee Hoi Chang, was picked by former President Kim Young Sam as his successor. Though Lee was no politician and lacked a mass following, his prospects suddenly improved when he received the support of the former Mayor of Seoul, Cho Soon, who dropped his own bid for the presidency. In this context, Kim Dae Jung could not have won the presidency without allying with Kim Jong Pil who was also running for presidency. Kim Jong Pil was the founder of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency that was responsible for brutal repression of the people for more than two decades.

In March 1998, President Kim Dae Jung approved the most sweeping amnesty in the history of his country, clearing the police and personnel records of 5.5 million people and freeing scores of political prisoners.3 The vast majority of those benefiting from the amnesty are ordinary Koreans who will have speeding tickets and other traffic violations cleared from their records, or civil servants who will have records of demotions removed from their personnel files. All political prisoners over the age of seventy were freed. Human rights advocates say the release of political prisoners did not go far enough because they had expected more than five hundred to be freed.4 Some say the President's action was constrained by the need to avoid antagonizing conservative forces.5

Relations with Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Constraints on Human Rights

Peace with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (hereafter referred to as DPRK) is one of the priorities on the new president's agenda. Kim has expressed greater sympathy than his predecessor, Kim Young Sam, for the DPRK's situation.6 In his inaugural address, he appealed to end decades of division on the Korean Peninsula.7 He also suggested that he would not oppose cooperation between DPRK and the United States or Japan.8

In a new round of peace talks held in Geneva among the U.S., China, DPRK, and ROK in March 1998, however, no substantial progress was made. The first direct talks in four years between DPRK and ROK also stalled in April 1998 due to the DPRK's insistence that it receive aid before discussing the reunion of divided families.9

The tension with DPRK has led ROK to impose strict laws against any conduct that could be considered sympathetic to Pyongyang. Such laws infringe upon civil liberties, particularly free expression. ROK Koreans can be jailed for listening to DPRK Korean radio broadcasts or visiting the North without government approval.10 Some were even convicted for burning incense to mourn the death of President Kim II Sung of DPRK in 1994.11 Suh Joon Sik, a long-time human rights activist, is facing criminal trial for showing a movie at a human rights film festival last fall.12 The movie was said to be pro-communist because it tells the story of a 1948 massacre of tens of thousands of suspected communist sympathizers on a ROK island.

Economic Crisis and Labor Movement

It is too early to understand all the reasons behind the recent economic crisis in ROK and other Asian countries, but consensus seems to be that corruption, cronyism and backroom dealing between government and business have contributed to the eruption of the crisis in Korea. The election of Kim Dae Jung, who was once an advocate of the labor and the poor, also indicates the dissatisfaction among Korean people with the elite KNP (now under the new name GNP) whose policies resulted in the disaster. In April 1998, Korean prosecutors said that they would investigate whether dereliction of duty by the former Finance Minister, Kang Kyung Shik, and the former chief presidential economic secretary, Kim In Ho, had played a role in the country's financial crisis.13

Another factor that played a role in the crisis was the escalating labor conflicts that took a heavy toll on the economy. In December 1996, the National Assembly met in secret for ten minutes at six o'clock in the morning and railroaded an anti-labor law when no opposition members were present. Had the law come into effect, employers would have been allowed to replace workers on a temporary basis and subcontract work during a strike; striking workers would no longer be paid; working hours could have been extended to fifty-six hours per week; multiple unions would have been banned until the year 2000. The proposed legislation triggered month-long massive strikes costing the economy US $3.2 billion, according to official figures.14 The government backed down and Parliament passed a revised law in March 1997, which dropped the ban on multiple unions and barred mass layoffs for two years.

However, labor peace did not last long. In 1998, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions called for another massive strike in protest of new labor reform bills pending in the National Assembly that would make layoffs easier.15 The law was introduced because the IMF's US $58 billion bailout required firms to be "more flexible" in firing workers.16 In February 1998, trade unions and the government entered an agreement that would end lifetime employment to help promote industrial restructuring.17 Consequently, the Labor Minister estimates that 10,000 have been losing their jobs daily.18 Women are the first to be fired, and an increasing number of women are forced to work part-time for less pay. The unemployment rate increased to 5.9 percent in February 1998 and will very likely remain at this level in the next three years19

Women in Export Processing Zones

Korea's economy took off in the 1960s by attracting Japanese and Western investors with its inexpensive labor. Export processing zones were established for foreign capital to set up factories to produce goods for export. Through the end of the 1970s, light industries produced most of ROK's exports. Female workers comprised more than half the work force in these industries: 55.2 percent in electronics, 72.4 percent in textiles and 53.4 percent in rubber footwear.20 The government kept asking workers, including women, to sacrifice and promised to reward them when the economy develops.21 Many young Korean women toiled in foreign-invested factories for long hours at a meager salary. At the same time, within one generation's time, the country was transformed from a poor rural economy to a highly industrialized one.

In the past decade, Korea has restructured the economy, relocating some production lines to countries with even cheaper labor or upgrading labor-intensive industries to high-tech capital-intensive production. The industrial restructuring has disproportionately affected women's employment opportunities. Between 1987 and 1992, employment in the garment industry dropped by 31.8 percent. In the shoe industry, employment dropped by 26.2 percent between 1991 and 1992.22 Both industries primarily hired women. In the electronics industry, the number of women workers decreased three times as fast as that of men.23 Consequently, more and more women have had to seek work from sub-contracting agencies. These subcontracting workers suffer lower pay, irregular hours and enjoy no benefits. There is little protection for their rights.


Comment on the Second Periodic Report of the Republic of Korea by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1993).

Suggestions and recommendations:


Summary record of the first part (public) of the 267th meeting of the Committee Against Torture: 17th session : Republic of Korea. 12/12/96. CAT/C/SR.267.


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