Final Report of Joint Fact-Finding Mission to Korea
Conducted by Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
and Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Joint Fact-Finding Mission to South Korea Final Report, Seoul, South Korea
July 21–24, 2008
Two regional human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) based in Bangkok and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) located in Hong Kong—conducted a fact-finding mission from July 21 to 24, 2008, in Seoul, South Korea, to examine human rights violations during the daily candlelight vigils that have been held since May 2. The specific focus of the mission was curbs on freedom of opinion and expression and riot police attacks on human rights defenders—lawyers, journalists and medical workers—at the vigils, which have been held to protest the April 18 agreement with the U.S. government to import U.S. beef into South Korea. The vigil participants have been concerned about insufficient safeguards to protect people from contracting mad cow disease, i.e., threats to people’s right to health.
The mission met with South Korean NGOs and human rights defenders who have been affected by the police violence at the vigils as well as government officials. Attempts to meet with additional government officials, especially in the Ministry of Justice and National Police Agency, were not successful, and a visit with several people arrested at the vigils was not granted by the Seoul Detention Center.
The mission’s findings are contained in this report, which, in short, ascertained that riot police have violently attacked human rights defenders at the vigils who have been clearly identified as lawyers, journalists or medical workers as well as brutally assaulting protesters. Moreover, the police have ignored the instructions in their own police manual about the use of such equipment as water cannons and fire extinguishers as well as batons and police shields. A number of organizers of the vigils have also been arrested under a law that prohibits public assemblies at night. Among the recommendations of the mission is the need to amend this law, the Act on Assembly and Demonstration, as soon as possible to remove this prohibition and to end the use of conscripted young men in the riot police. It is the view of the mission that their youth and inadequate training contributes to the police brutality at the vigils.
In addition to these troubling findings, the mission found that recent defamation cases against a TV program about U.S. beef and mad cow disease and the government’s announcement of policies to extend criminal defamation to the internet point to further attempts by the government to silence criticism of President Lee Myung-bak’s policies.
These findings would be alarming in any context, but they are especially worrisome in South Korea, a country which has made significant strides in the past 20 years in protecting human rights and instituting a democratic political system after decades of military rule. Concern about the reversal of these gains under the new government of President Lee were shared by the mission participants and many of the Korean people that the mission interviewed.