SOUTH KOREA: A model once appreciated becomes another example for others in the region 

Democracy and human rights were taboo under the military regime until the movement of democratisation which took place in 1987 triggered the 9th Amendment to the Constitution in the country. This Amendment guaranteed at least ‘procedural’ democracy. Those terms were released from constraints that had been kept for decades by the military forces. After they became free, many commissions were established to reinvestigate the past wrong doings and cases of miscarriage of justice. As the result, the truth was, for the most part disclosed and based on that justice, such as restoration and compensation was delivered to victims and the perpetrators were punished accordingly. This justice that South Korea accomplished has rarely been seen in the region and other continents. Thus, the country’s achievement in this regard was considered a model in Asia that has inflated the aspirations of democracy and human rights that the people are struggling for.

The month of December is the anniversary to celebrate the historic adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 after the atrocities were internationally witnessed and caused by wars. In the context of South Korea, it is also the month to celebrate the first anniversary of the current President, Park Geun-Hye, who took office as a result of Presidential Election held in 2012. However, the celebration for the adoption of the international human rights instrument has lost all meaning for several years now and been replaced by the deterioration of human rights. Furthermore, the first anniversary of being elected this year is no longer, or at least genuinely, celebrated due to serious allegations of election fraud.

According to reports this allegation started, in fact, a couple of days before the Presidential Election, an agent of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) was found to have written slanderous statements on the opposition candidate and praising the ruling party’s candidate over the internet. On the night of December 16, three days before the election, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency took the unusually speedy steps to announce that the statements were irrelevant to the election. This was clearly found false by the investigation of the prosecutor’s office after the result of the election was announced. In this process, the Prosecutor General took a step in accordance with the law to indict the former director of the NIS with charges of Article 9 (prohibition of involvement in domestic politics) of the National Intelligence Service Act and Election Act. Reportedly, the charge under the Election Act was strongly objected to by the Presidential Office before the indictment decision was made. If this was so, it would be regarded as only a manifestation of the illegitimacy of the current presidency.

Under these circumstances what steps should be taken? There seems to be two possible scenarios, either of which may be appropriate steps to find legitimacy again through a thorough and impartial investigation into the NIS so that the opposition can no longer raise it or make use of the methods used by the military during their rule. This was to quash such allegations with ignorance and catagorise them as ideas of the North Korean followers or sympathisers. The second option required control of the prosecutor’s office that would investigate and indict accordingly with the will of the Presidential Office by way of the Minister of Justice. Obviously, what has been demonstrated in the country so far indicates that the second scenario has been adopted.

As for the first step, the Prosecutor General seemingly resigned voluntarily but, in fact, was forced to resign after the recommendation of resignation by the Minister of Justice was sent to the Presidential Office. The incident that was used to support this recommendation was a news article published, alleging that the Prosecutor General had a child out of wedlock and providing details of the child. The Prosecutor General strongly objected to this allegation. Nevertheless, his argument was of no validity since the recommendation was already concluded. Apart from this, the person who illegally provided the details of the child has been currently under investigation. But, information obtained so far seems to indicate that the details were provided to government authorities. The Prosecutor General’s removal is certainly a clear message that the NIS should not be touched without the permission of the Presidential Office. What is worse is the principle of the independence and impartiality of the prosecutor’s office was replaced by the protection of the NIS and it disappeared along with the message.

In addition, more and more media reports reveal that other state agencies such as the Cyber Command under the direct control of the Minister of National Defence have also either been mobilised or involved in the interference with the Presidential Election. Recent news reports that the activities of the Cyber Command were reported to the Presidential Office by way of the Defence Minister through a direct line. In addition, the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs and Ministry of Security and Public Administration also joined in the acts of interference under the name of national security training before the Election. Reports released so far seem to strongly support the allegation of election fraud and at the very least, amount to the conclusion that state agencies have been systematically involved in attempting to interfere with the Presidential Election by praising the incumbent and targeting the opposition candidate.

On the other hand, there is an obvious move to distract the people’s concerns by creating other matters that require their imminent responses such as situations at Miryang and Gangjeong and massive disciplinary actions against workers who simply enjoy the right to strike, peacefully assemble and demonstrate which is enshrined in the Constitution. On top of this, criminalising those who enjoy the right to freedom of opinion and expression is in process by legal means: the National Security Act. It is enough to create chilling effects in the society that has played its role very well since its creation.

For some, it may be too early to come to a conclusion on election fraud since the investigation has been ongoing. However, for others it may be enough to make a conclusion. The removal of the then Prosecutor General and the message this delivers may provide a reasonable doubt as to the independence of the prosecutor’s office. At maximum, by referring to past experience relating to cases of illegal activities by the state, there is a high possibility that the investigation may end up with the prime actors remaining free. At the end, it all depends on the will of people in the country: keeping silent, with or without being ignorant to the serious nature of the allegation will lead them into a new direction that might be possibly unsuitable for them to live with, or, the opposite direction through active participation in such process. But the reality is that the model attained in the past has already departed from its original place and now is moving to a new direction. Whichever direction is taken, it will again be an example, whether good or bad, of either the promotion or deterioration of rights.

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Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-245-2013
Countries : South Korea,
Issues : Child rights, Democracy, Freedom of expression, Judicial system, Military, Rule of law,