A Lost Decade for Human Rights in South Korea

A Lost Decade for Human Rights in South Korea

Daniel Corks
Daniel Corks

In November 2015 I was invited to be a judge at a debate contest for university students. The topic was whether Kaesong Industrial Complex was helping the human rights situation for average North Koreans.

At the end of the day, I heard one of the winners remark that he was proud to have won but he felt it was unfortunate as well; he would have to leave this accomplishment off his resume. Listing his participation in a human rights event would more likely hurt his chances with potential employers than help.

“Human rights” has become a dirty word in South Korea after nearly 10 years of conservative rule. Human rights NGOs in South Korea know all too well that their work is looked down on. Funding for projects has dried up. Businesses and even many government officials view human rights activists as troublemakers. The same negative perception is shared by much of the general public.

Park Geun-hye’s downfall and the end of the conservative regime have renewed hope for human rights. Moon Jae-in’s presidency might mean reversing a decade of damage.


Before Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, took power in early 2008, progressives in South Korea enjoyed 10 years under two sympathetic presidents: Kim Dae-jung, a democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient; and Roh Moo-hyun, a former human rights lawyer-turned-politician.

Under Kim’s rule the government founded the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK). This was also a time when much of the country’s network of NGOs advocating for social change — known as ‘civil society’ — was founded or significantly strengthened. Government ministries had funds to directly support NGOs working in related fields, and NGOs could also receive indirect funding through government-funded organizations such as the NHRCK or the Korea Democracy Foundation.

Civil society had equally great hopes when Roh Moo-hyun assumed the presidency following Kim Dae-jung’s term. With Moon Jae-in — the current president — as his chief-of-staff, Roh’s ambitious platform called for sweeping changes to promote transparency and fairness across all sectors of society. Highlights included reforming the very powerful but highly politicized prosecutor’s office, reducing the influence of the country’s family-run conglomerates, increasing jobs within the government, and expanding welfare and social support.

Roh’s execution of his plan, however, left much to be desired. In the words of Kim Duk-jin, a well-known human rights activist, Roh made “many mistakes from the beginning.” Roh was inexperienced in wielding power and didn’t know how to effectively handle the various entrenched factions of the government, such as the military and police force. And despite his proposed platform, Roh actually stuck to more centrist policies, disappointing his base and plunging his approval ratings into a freefall from the very beginning of his presidency.

When Lee Myung-bak took office, progressive policies that Roh was able to enact — like establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — were largely stopped or repealed. Government turned a deaf ear to issues raised by progressive groups. Funds earmarked for support of programs organized by civil society were cut heavily. NGO support that remained was redirected to right-wing groups or NGOs that worked exclusively on North Korean human rights (as a way of delegitimizing Pyongyang).


Lee Myung-bak’s inauguration was soon followed by a months-long protest against his government, sparked by anger over a decision to import American beef. In the aftermath of the demonstrations, the NHRCK published investigations that were critical of police tactics against demonstrators. Lee’s government, incensed at the findings, responded by slashing the commission’s budget and launching investigations into supposed corruption within the commission’s ranks. Its chairperson resigned in protest, only to be replaced by a man whose tenure as chairperson is referred to by South Korea’s human rights community as the “six lost years.”

Lee’s budget cuts to the NHRCK took their toll, and the commission was forced to relocate its offices to save money on rent. The original location had been directly to the east of Seoul City Hall, a major landmark, and civil society decried the loss of accessibility and visibility brought by the relocation. The move meant a loss of symbolism as well: The public square in front of Seoul City Hall Square is the site of frequent demonstrations and rallies, and the commission is no longer nextdoor to watch over the demonstrators.

The conservative political atmosphere also led to a sizeable decrease in corporate donations to NGOs. Many NGOs, in South Korea and elsewhere, rely not only on government grants but on corporate donations as well. Large companies donate to NGOs and community organizations — in fields unrelated to their business — often for PR purposes, to show that they care about corporate social responsibility. Neither NGOs nor companies want to go on the record, but in private NGO workers admit that corporate donations to civic society declined significantly between the 2008 protests and the NHRCK chair’s resignation two years later, never recovering afterward.

Park Geun-hye’s election in December 2012 brought more assaults on political freedom and the human rights sector. Beyond simply continuing with Lee Myung-bak’s approach, her term in office saw the forced dissolution of an opposition political party, the arrest of a prominent union leader, defamation suits against journalists and civilians critical of her, and ongoing efforts to restrict public demonstrations and treat all demonstrators as hostile.

Her handling of protests was harsh enough to warrant a UN investigator to make a 10-day visit to the country and issue a critical assessment.


The presidency of Moon Jae-in offers another opportunity to the NGO world. Another president who is a former human rights lawyer, sympathetic to their aims. Another president with a long history of participating in pro-democracy and pro-rights campaigns. Moon’s election platform echoed the key points of his late friend and former boss, Roh Moo-hyun: transparent governance, overhaul of the prosecutor’s office, reduction of large conglomerates’ influence, and expansion of government services and social welfare.

It’s natural then that the atmosphere these days in South Korea’s civil society circles is one of optimism, but not without trepidation. Moon said all the right things during the campaign (for the most part). His moves during his first weeks in office suggested he would make good on his campaign promises and implement policies that NGOs have been calling for for years. One of his early directives was restoring the NHRCK to prominence.

Moon, personally, has the experience of serving as Roh’s chief of staff and the lessons learned from the failures of that time. Moon’s first months in office have shown that he is able to call for changes within various branches of government without losing support or political capital.

On the the NGO community’s side, there is eagerness not to repeat their previous failures under Roh Moo-hyun. Rather than dying out during conservative rule, NGOs toughened up, cut costs and relied more on private donations from committed supporters to survive. The extensive organization and planning behind last year’s candlelight protests showed that civil society has emerged as a powerful force, and they plan to play a major role in achieving policies aimed at social progress. The numerous domestic NGOs dealing with human rights issues have grown in size and stature despite the paucity of program funding, and major foreign NGOs have established a local presence as well.

But once bitten, twice shy. Roh Moo-hyun’s first year in office was also a hopeful time for them, only to soon sour, and those memories are still fresh. Conservatives suffered a crushing moral loss with the scandal that brought down Park Geun-hye, but once they regroup they’re sure to put up a fierce opposition to any major progressive policies, just as they did with Roh. Moon’s party has no majority in the National Assembly, and the next general election isn’t until 2020. The Moon administration also made a bizarre attempt to appoint as a presidential advisor Hong Seok-hyeon, a media tycoon whose nephew is Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong, in a sign that even this president might not be free from a chaebol connection.


This past June activists and scholars met at the Jeju Human Rights Conference to discuss and debate the major issues of the day. Once an annual conference, funding difficulties and government discouragement resulted in the event not being held for the last seven years. But not holding the conference wasn’t an option this year, a critical juncture in South Korean politics.

While the conference was an opportunity for experts from NGOS, academia and the government to discuss how best to implement policies that touch on their shared concerns, they will be opponents in the coming battle over constitutional reform, in particular how best to enshrine the principle of anti-discrimination to protect all South Koreans including the LGBT community.

South Korea has long lacked an anti-discrimination law due to conservative objections spearheaded by the Evangelical lobby. Progressives believe that any new constitution must include an anti-discrimination clause, but it’s unclear whether Moon would support a constitutional reform that includes protection of sexual minorities given his explicitly anti-LGBT stance during the election campaign. (In response to a question from a conservative opponent during a televised debate, he declared unequivocally, “I oppose it [homosexuality]. … I don’t like homosexuality.”)

Even with a self-consciously pro-rights president in power, the road to improved social protections remains rocky. And then there is the issue of how to avoid a repeat of the short-lived progress of the past. Beyond deciding just which specific issues should be prioritized, the question on every activist’s mind is this: How can human rights advances be made such that they will be permanent, or at least much harder to roll back should conservatives return to power?

Cover image: Heavy police presence was commonly sighted at protests under the Park Geun-hye administration. (Daniel Corks/Korea Exposé)
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