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South Korea: Defend Human Rights

Suggestions to President-elect Lee Myung-bak

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, January 2008

We congratulate you on your election as South Korea's next president. With only a month left until you take office, we are writing to draw your attention to urgent human rights issues on the Korean Peninsula.

We would like to commend you on your December 2007 statement that your administration will not be silent about North Korea's human rights violations. South Korea is a long-time proponent of protecting basic human rights, but in the past decade has claimed that North Korea is an exception.  
 
Such a position has deeply disappointed many observers who care about the plight of North Koreans suffering under an abusive government. We hope that you will help restore South Korea's international reputation and credibility by taking a principled stance on human rights issues wherever they occur.  

One of the most repressive countries in the world, North Korea has a long list of urgent human rights issues, but the right to food is arguably the most pressing. As you are well aware, South Korea has been the largest food donor to North Korea for years now, but it has neglected to monitor who ultimately received the aid.  
 
We urge you to ensure that the most vulnerable people in North Korea, including young children and the elderly, benefit by thoroughly monitoring aid distribution.  

We also would like to encourage you to continue to accept North Koreans in South Korea. Seoul has generously admitted more than 10,000 North Korean refugees as South Korean citizens, mostly in the past decade, but the number represents a small fraction of those in China and elsewhere living at constant risk of arrest and repatriation.  
 
If they were forced to return to North Korea, they would face ill-treatment and imprisonment simply for the "crime" of leaving without state permission. South Korea can admit more refugees, and admit them faster, by accelerating its screening and transfer process.  

South Korea must demand that North Korea immediately return hundreds of South Korean citizens staying in the country against their will, including prisoners of war from the 1950-1953 Korean War and those abducted in following decades.  
 
It should also ask North Korea not to suspend or delay the reunion of aging men and women who had been separated from their families since the war between North and South Korea.  

South Koreans  are desiring Korean reunification, in Seoul.
photo: Su-Kyung Han

We ask also that you monitor the status of North Korean workers at the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. Based on an analysis of the laws governing the complex, Human Rights Watch learned that some of the most basic workers' rights, such as the right to organize, elect their own representatives, or strike, are not protected.  
 
We also found out that South Korean companies violated the law by paying the workers' wages to the North Korean government, rather than paying the workers directly. Without protection of the most fundamental workers' rights, it will be difficult for South Korea to convince advanced democracies to accept products from the complex duty free.  
 
Under your leadership, we expect South Korea to join forces with the international community in publicly condemning North Korea's gross violations of human rights, including the latter's ongoing use of prison camps for those deemed disobedient by the government, public executions and severe restrictions of personal freedoms guaranteed by international conventions to which North Korea is a party.  
 
South Korea's leadership will be indispensable in convincing North Korea that criticism of its human rights violations is expression of genuine concern for the well being of North Koreans, not a conspiracy to topple the North Korean regime by its perceived enemies.  
 
South Korea is a leading democracy in Asia, yet there are ways in which key rights are not fully protected. It has not executed any prisoner for more than a decade, but it still retains the death penalty.  
 
We would like to ask you to make South Korea the first Asian country to officially abolish the death penalty. Such a move will surely encourage other countries in the region to follow suit.  
 
Although the National Security Law has been used with declining frequency, and the punishments for violating it have become more lenient, its ongoing use remains problematic.  
 
Banning "praising or supporting'' North Korea is a violation of free expression, and, as such, we believe it is time for South Korea to either abolish or revise the law to prevent it from being misused to harass those peacefully expressing their political or ideological views.  
 
We hope you will be remembered as the South Korean leader who had the courage to abolish this Cold War remnant.  
 
We ask for your attention to the socially weak or marginalized in the South Korean society as well, including sex workers, who have limited means of redress when facing abuse from their employers.  
 
We welcome the steps South Korea has taken to strengthen the protection of sex workers in recent years, but further measures are needed to protect those who voluntarily stay in the sex industry.  
 
Migrant workers are also known to face difficulties in forming trade unions and experience discrimination and abuse by their employers. We ask you to take measures so that migrant workers enjoy the same rights accorded to South Korean workers.  
 
Finally, we urge you to take a strong stand in support of refugees and asylum seekers. Compared to other industrialized democracies, South Korea has been anything but generous in accepting those fleeing persecution.  
 
Although South Korea signed the U.N. Refugee Convention in 1992, it has only accepted a few dozen non-North Korean refugees and asylum seekers since that time.  
 
Without demonstrating solidarity with other democracies and compliance with its international obligations by vigorously protection human rights at home, encouraging North Korea to do the same, and accepting those fleeing abusive regimes, South Korea may continue to grow as an economic power, but it will be unlikely to earn global respect.  
 
To achieve it, at this juncture of South Korea's history, your leadership is much needed in the defense of human rights.

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