SOUTH KOREA: Licence of arrest granted to police and military in Gangjeong, Jeju Island 

Despite heavy criticism from inside and outside the country (AHRC-STM-041-2012), South Korean police have been arbitrarily arresting and detaining rights activists and villagers in Gangjeong village where a navy base is under construction. Meanwhile, several media organizations reported allegations that the Navy and construction companies are violating laws relating to the environment and cultural assets. Despite serious flaws in the blueprint, acknowledged by the prime minister’s office, the process of construction has not been affected at all, with the President’s strong support.

When using gunpowder to blast away the rocks to access the sea was approved by Jeju Island’s local police, rights groups and villagers tried to block the transportation of the gunpowder. In this process, the police indiscriminately arrested and detained the demonstrators contrary to legal requirements. It is reported that the police have so far arrested and detained around 70 demonstrators. They include religious leaders, rights and peace activists and villagers. Two activists known as Ms. Angie Zelter from the UK and Mr. Benjamain Monnet from France were also arrested in this process on March 14, and it is reported that the immigration officers would forcibly deport them soon.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has learnt that Mr. Monnet was indiscriminately assaulted by thugs hired by the construction company as well as the police on both November 9 and December 26, 2011. He claimed that he filed a complaint against the thugs and the police but no investigation has been conducted. Similarly, Mr. Yang Yoon-mo, a film critic, was reportedly assaulted by the police on April 6, 2011 and filed a complaint. Such complaints relating to assault and battery by the thugs and the police, as well as illegal arrest and detention by the police have been completely ignored, without a single investigation being made, while demonstrators continue to suffer.

It is unfortunate that the South Korean police have enjoyed impunity for a long time, particularly in cases of protest. In 2008, while many demonstrators were arrested in the candle light protest and sentenced to fines, very few police officers were held accountable for either assault or misuse of force.

In 2009, the arrest of workers on strike in Ssang Yong Motor Company by the police operating together with thugs hired by the company is another indicator where no police officers were held accountable for assault, while the workers were under the complete control of the police. Over 20 traumatised workers exposed to extreme violence during their arrest at that time have so far committed suicide.

Earlier in 2009, the case of Yongsan also questioned the legality of the use of force resulting in the death of five evictees and one police officer during a police operation. The police ordered the operation despite being fully aware that the building was filled with paint thinner, which is strongly flammable. Again, the misuse of police force was not properly addressed, while the protesters were convicted.

A common feature in the above cases is that the rights of individuals were indiscriminately suppressed by the police, while they themselves have rarely been held accountable for rights violations. From the time of military dictatorship, assemblies, protests and trade union activities were completely prohibited in the country, and these cases were categorised under public security involving intelligence agencies. While this practice was changed after democratisation, for the last few years the police have taken up the old position again.

The role of the police is to enforce laws to control crimes and protect the rights of individuals. Their use of force is justifiable only in certain situations. The police chief is appointed by the President and therefore has political responsibility to comply with the will or order from the President. On the other hand, the chief has a legal obligation to use force only according to law, and in respect of human rights. In most cases however, the police are not held responsible when their actions are in breach of law and human rights. In fact, the misuse of police force is justified in support of politics.

Gangjeong village in Jeju Island is currently a place where law does not exist, not because of the villagers or demonstrators, but because of the police and military who are wilfully misusing their power and violating laws. Not only do they face no action for such illegal behaviour, but they have strong support from the President. In effect, the police and military in Jeju Island now have a licence to arrest and detain whoever holds any peaceful assembly or demonstration against the naval base construction, and to ensure the construction never stops.

With even the blueprint of the naval base indicating that the site is not suitable for the docking of either navy or civilian vessels, the government of South Korea has failed to provide any justifiable reason for the ongoing construction. In such circumstances, the violation of laws and rights in defending the construction is even more outrageous.

All societies have conflicts, but good governance indicates an adequate conflict resolving process respecting human rights and rule of law. Far from such respect, the government of South Korea is instead showing the absurdity of rushing to a place of flammable substances while holding a flame.

The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the police to release all those arrested and detained, and stop legal action against the activists and villagers. An independent body should closely monitor the violation of human rights and misuse of power at the time of arrest and detention by the police and military. Law enforcement agents should wear uniform that is identifiable, and their use of force should be restricted in accordance with the law. It is regretful that the government insists on pursuing the naval base construction–resulting in serious conflicts within society–despite the blueprint verification of its inappropriateness.