south Korea: Release of Political Prisoners: A Mockery Again


Urgent Appeal Case: UA980819
ISSUES: Arbitrary arrest & detention,

In commemoration of the independence of Korea from Japanese colonial rule on 15 August 1945, the government of the Republic of Korea announced a special amnesty on 14 August 1998. In spite of repeated expectations by human rights activists and families of political prisoners upon the inauguration of the once opposition leader President Kim Dae-jung, once again the hopes for freedom to the more than 450 political prisoners currently detained in south Korea are shattered.

While the release of 94 political prisoners – including a number of whom have gained international recognition, as international human rights organizations campaign on their behalf – is certainly good news, there are more than 360 political prisoners still behind bars, and the number only continues to grow as the new administration continues to practice the ill-reputed ‘anti-state’ investigations against students, workers, and other activists. Just in the several months since the inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung last February, 232 persons were detained for political reasons according to MINKAHYUP Human Rights Group.


What is more alarming is the introduction of a system of taking a signed oath to abide by the law from political prisoners as a condition for being considered for amnesty. Such a condition applies ONLY to political prisoners, and human rights organizations in Korea are warning that it is only a variation to the system of ideological conversion, forcing political prisoners to sign away their freedom of conscience, the freedom of thought, opinion, and beliefs. The government half-heartedly acknowledged the existence of the thought control system last July when it announced to abolish the system and replace it with the oath system. The latter system sounds reasonable on paper, that is, to uphold and abide by the law, to be a good citizen, so on and so forth. However, it is in essence giving up one’s right to disagree, even peacefully, with laws that do not reflect the principles of freedom of justice. The National Security Law, by which more than 70% of political prisoners are detained, is only one example.

Prisoners who have been in cells no bigger than closets for more than 4 decades continue to be held for the sole reason that they refused to sign the oath. There are currently 17 long-term political prisoners, including the longest serving political prisoner, Woo Yong-gak, in his 41st year of imprisonment. No one, who did not sign the oath, was released, and no one, who signed the oath, was left in prison with the exception of one non-political prisoner (convicted of burglary). It is unquestionably a system of coercion that invades the very private and holy sphere of the mind. It divides a prisoner internally in the question of whether to sign the oath, while also dividing prisoners externally into those who signed and those who did not sign. It is truly an unjust and inhuman system of control.

In the meantime, all those who had been convicted in connection with the famous trial of the two former presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, for the military coup in 1980 were released with full return of rights without one word of oath. Although the government claims that this is the logical step after the amnesty of the two former presidents last December, there are criticisms that the hasty conclusion to the whole issue is unjust in light of the unresolved issue of victims and investigation of past violations under the military regime left untouched for the most part.


In an interview by Hankyoreh Newspaper with Minister of Justice Park Sang-chon on the morning of the announcement of the amnesty, the minister stated that there will be no consideration of release for the 17 long-term prisoners on humanitarian grounds in any near future. It is only with all our efforts that his word will be reneged, and the remaining hundreds of political prisoners will be freed.


Send letters and faxes calling for human rights reforms and for the release of all political prisoners without conditions.

Send appeals to:

President Kim Dae-jung, The Blue House, 1 Sejong-no, Chongno-gu Seoul 110-050, KOREA. Fax: +822 770 0253

Minister Park Sang-chon, Ministry of Justice, 1 Chungang-dong, Kwachon-myon Shihung-gun, Kyonggi Province, 427-010, KOREA. Fax: +822 504 3337

Document Type : Urgent Appeal Case
Document ID : UA980819
Countries : South Korea,
Issues : Arbitrary arrest & detention,