CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

South Korea

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Last updated on 18.01.2019 at 11:28

Overview

Although the Republic of Korea (South Korea) made progress towards democratisation after decades of dictatorship, over the last few years many aspects of civic space have been restricted.

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'Escape the corset’ feminist movement challenging societal beauty standards

'Escape the corset’ feminist movement challenging societal beauty standards

There is a growing movement of young women activists in South Korea who are challenging long-held beauty ideals. They call themselves the "escape the corset" movement. These are acts of rebellion against the constraints they feel society has imposed upon them

Association

Feminist movement challenging long-held beauty ideals

On 10th December 2018 it was reported that South Korean YoutTube star, Lina Bae faced death threats when she switched from posting make-up tutorials to uploading a video of her removing her make-up. The video went viral with over five million views.

Bae is part of a growing movement of young women activists in South Korea who are challenging long-held beauty ideals. They call themselves the "escape the corset" movement. They have been shaving off their long hair and removing make-up, then posting their pictures on social media. From a young age in South Korea, women are bombarded with adverts telling them how to look and these are acts of rebellion against the constraints they feel society has imposed upon them. Those involved in the movement are destroying makeup collections and then posting photos online. They are throwing out their cosmetics and skincare products and adopting short, wash-and-go haircuts.

As documented previously by the CIVICUS Monitor, 2018 was a significant year for the women’s rights movement particularly due to the #MeToo movement. It opened a floodgate of cases on gender-based violence and this movement is increasing the growing campaign against patriarchy and discrimination in the country.

Activist recognised for work with spycam porn victims

In December 2018, BBC featured Soo-yuen Park as one of their 'BBC 100 influential women' for the year. She has dedicated her life to supporting women who have been victims of spy cam porn through establishing the group ‘Digital Sex Crime Out’ in 2015 as part of a campaign to bring down one of the most notorious websites, called Soranet. Soranet was shut down in 2016 but many other websites have popped up in its place.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, tens of thousands of women have been organising street protests against biased police investigations into the widespread use of spycam pornography in South Korea, a violation of South Korea's privacy laws. The spy cameras are often used to capture women and sometimes men undressing, going to the toilet, or in changing rooms which are then posted online at pornographic sites. Between 2012 and 2017, out of the nearly 30,000 male suspects investigated by police, less than 3 percent were arrested for investigation.

Peaceful Assembly

Protest by taxi drivers against a ride-sharing service

On 10th December 2019, a 57-year old South Korean taxi driver died after self-immolating himself in front of the National Assembly during a protest by taxi drivers against a carpooling service and their attempts to introduce ride sharing. Since October 2018 taxi drivers have initiated a series of protests when the country’s biggest taxi mobile app company, the Kakao Corporation, announced that it will launch a ride-sharing service via its messenger app. Kakao faced strong opposition from the drivers and it angered the unions for threatening the job security and livelihood of taxi drivers. After the rally and the driver’s suicide, Kakao delayed the launch until a consensus over the issue was met.

On 10th January 2019, a second taxi driver burned himself to death in protest. The 64-year-old, surnamed Im, parked near the US embassy in central Seoul moments before his vehicle was engulfed in flames. Im left a suicide note calling for a ban on what he called "illegal car-pooling".

Expression

Authorities cautious on use of national security law

On 13th December 2018, a group of unknown protesters put up banners in the middle of Seoul city, expressing their excitement over the visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Such actions are illegal under the National Security Law (NSL) but the South Korean authorities seem to be cautious about implementing the law as inter-Korean relations normalise.

As previously documented, successive governments have relied on tough security laws to restrict freedom of expression, in particular when it comes to debate about North Korea. The most nefarious of these is the National Security Law a law dating back to the aftermath of World War II. The vague wording of the NSL leaves it open to misuse by police and other authorities. Governments have used it to target dissidents and opponents for decades. In 2015, South Korea broadened the application of the NSL to new categories and additional groups of individuals, such as politicians and even serving parliamentarians, and foreign nationals.

However, on 19th December 2018, a local court in Seoul commuted the sentence of a person who was indicted under the law for uploading 51 posts praising North Korea and criticising South Korea from 2011 to 2016. The court decided in the latest trial to cut his sentence to nine months after it found him not guilty of some of the charges.

Similarly on 11th November, the Seoul Central District Court returned a verdict of not guilty after 43 years, to a man who was charged with violation of the National Security Law for failing to report on his colleague who made comments glorifying the North Korean regime. He had been sentenced to two and a half years of imprisonment in 1975 but applied for a retrial.

Association

Article 21 of South Korea’s 1987 Constitution guarantees the freedom of association, while the Civil Act governs the registration and operation of organisations.

Article 21 of South Korea’s 1987 Constitution guarantees the freedom of association, while the Civil Act governs the registration and operation of organisations. Article 32 of the Act requires associations and foundations to seek permission in order to acquire legal personality. The authorities can revoke this permission when a CSO’s activities fall outside their purpose, or when they violate conditions attached to the permission. In practice, authorities do sometimes reject applications from CSOs. For example, the Ministry of Justice denied a request for legal personality from LGBTI group Beyond the Rainbow Foundation, claiming that the Minister could only register groups who work on ‘general human rights’ themes. Human rights defenders also face harassment and intimidation, as authorities have used immigration law to deport foreign human rights defenders and imposed travel bans on others when travelling to international conferences.

Peaceful Assembly

The constitution guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly and explicitly prohibits the licensing of assembly and association.

The constitution guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly and explicitly prohibits the licensing of assembly and association. The Assembly and Demonstration Act requires demonstration organisers to submit a report to the competent police station with details of the planned event. According to Article 8 of the Act, the police may ban an assembly or demonstration if they deem it to pose a direct threat to public peace and order. The legislation also prohibits demonstrations within a 100-meter radius of some key government buildings. In practice, authorities continues to exert tight control over peaceful assemblies and abuse their law enforcement powers by using force excessively. Public demonstrations such as those related to the Sewol Ferry tragedy and other anti-government rallies were met with unnecessary force by authorities. 

Despite the historical use of excessive force to quell protests, events at the end of the 2016 signalled improving conditions for freedom of assembly. In this period, South Korea saw some of the largest and most peaceful demonstrations in living memory. Millions of South Koreans took to the streets in weekly protests against a corruption scandal involving senior government figures. These frequent mobilisations were facilitated peacefully and ultimately succeeded in forcing the departure of President Park.

Expression

Despite constitutional protection and the presence of a vibrant and diverse media sector, academics and activists in South Korea report freedom of expression has been severely constrained by restrictive laws including the National Security Law (NSL).

Despite constitutional protection and the presence of a vibrant and diverse media sector, academics and activists in South Korea report freedom of expression has been severely constrained by restrictive laws including the National Security Law (NSL). The current government has made unashamedly robust use of the NSL to suppress dissent and persecute individuals who hold views critical of the government. Defamation is a criminal offense, and carries sentences of up to seven years in prison. On the other hand, physical attacks and the harassment of journalists are not common occurrences. Although internet penetration is very high, users face censorship and numerous laws restricting different aspects of digital activity.