Trade unionist jailed for organising protests in South Korea

Peaceful Assembly 

On 13th December, a court in Seoul upheld the conviction of prominent trade unionist Han Sang-gyun. As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, Sang-gyun was originally sentenced to five years in prison for his role in coordinating a protest that turned violent. While the conviction was upheld, his sentence was reduced to three years. Amnesty International has drawn attention to Han Sang-gyun's case, as emblematic of an intolerance toward peaceful assembly. In a recent statement, Amnesty International said: 

'Han Sang-gyun should not be held criminally responsible for violent acts taken by a small number of individuals, simply because he was one of the organisers of protests that were largely peaceful.'

Despite such reprisals against individual activists, South Korean authorities have been unable to stem the tide of citizen action that has swept through South Korea of late. As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, recent mass mobilisations prompted the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, following her implication in a corruption scandal in November. Ahead of a parliamentary vote on her impeachment in December, an estimated 1.5 million citizens took to the streets demanding a criminal investigation into Park's alleged collusion in the corruption scandal. Under increasing pressure from civil society, South Korean Parliamentarians voted in favour of President Park's impeachment on 9th December. Protests calling for Park's prosecution continued at the end of 2016


Park Geun-hye's former administration has been placed under increasing scrutiny in the wake of her impeachment. Reports emerged in 2015 that South Korean authorities restricted the activities of artists critical of the government with its own “blacklist”. In light of Park's impeachment, these reports have only recently been fully investigated. The list, said to contain 10,000 names, includes famous film directors, actors, painters, and poets; a revelation which has prompted outrage and recently lead to the arrest of the culture minister, Cho Yoon-sun. Many claim that the list is illustrative of the systematic measures taken against critics of the government who spoke out against the scandal-plagued President. Despite an apology from authorities, freedom of speech advocates have drawn attention to the startling resemblance between these efforts and those of Park's father, Park Chung-hee, during South Korea's military dictatorship in the 1960's and 70's. During this period, news and media outlets where heavily censored by authorities. An investigation into the list continues. 

Many have claimed that the Presidential scandal has improved freedom of speech in South Korea. As the momentum builds, more people have become involved in public actions and feel free to express their opinions without fear of reprisal. Many have observed an increase in participation, especially amongst the youth who have played a key role in shaping the political situation and speaking out about injustice.