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Civil Rights At Issue In Korea, But Not The Korea You'd Expect

Police use water cannons to block South Korean protesters following a large rally against the government in downtown Seoul on Nov. 14.
Jung Yeon-Je
AFP/Getty Images
Police use water cannons to block South Korean protesters following a large rally against the government in downtown Seoul on Nov. 14.

When you hear about rights abuses on the Korean peninsula, the conversation usually focuses on North Korea. But lately, the North's democratic neighbor, South Korea, is also drawing international concern for how its government is dealing with dissent.

In November, 60,000 people showed up in downtown Seoul for a mass protest against President Park Geun-hye, raising "a gamut of ongoing concerns about freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful, public protest," says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Demonstrators opposedthe government's push to pass union-busting labor laws, attempts to ban protests, jailing of journalists, use of a Cold War-era national security law to criminalize certain kinds of speech and a recent move to force schools to use state-written history textbooks.

"Every issue that we are facing violates the core principles of democracy," says Ryu Mi-gyung, a labor group representative.

South Korea's situation hardly rivals that in North Korea — which has long been accused of human rights abuses that include torture, killings and the jailing of thousands of dissidents.

However, a wider international audience is now paying closer attention to President Park's government and how it is handling dissent.

"South Korea doesn't get a free pass just because it's next to a very horrible, rights-abusing neighbor," Robertson says. "We don't take opinion left or right. We take the opinion that there shouldn't be censorship. And the basic idea of disallowing a number of different points of view and there should only be one specific textbook, you know, raises some serious concerns."

When protesters highlighted those concerns in the street demonstrations, the national police force responded with tear gas and paint and water cannons so strong that one demonstrator remains hospitalized in critical condition.

"The police should use proportional force, not excessive force," says T. Kumar, the international advocacy director for Amnesty International. "The current president is going to fail if she tries to reverse the course toward democracy by using excuses to silence political critics."

A 'Cold War' Environment

The president and her ruling Saenuri party counter that South Korea makes these moves because it's in a unique security situation.

"South Korea is still at conflict with North Korea. We're still living in the Cold War era," says party spokesman Kim Yong-woo.

That's one reason why the government wants to rewrite South Korea's history textbooks, which it claims are too sympathetic to North Korea. Currently, schools can choose from dozens of texts written and distributed by commercial publishers.

The books "are written by a group of authors with ideologically biased views, who downplay the proud achievements of South Korea and instead glorify North Korea," the president's spokesperson, Chun Hye-ran, said in an email.

The government's rewriting of the books will "rectify the problem" of "misleading young students," Chun said.

When it comes to police tactics, the ruling party says it has to protect South Koreans from themselves.

"South Korea respects the freedom of citizens to express themselves and assemble," says party spokesman Kim. "But any activities that threaten the national security must be dealt with the National Security Law or else we may end up with very dangerous results."

Kim argues that suppressing protests is justified since demonstrators have been violent, wielding lead pipes and breaking barricades. And, he says, the government must protect itself from North Korean sympathizers within South Korea's borders.

"They're anti-government. They praise North Korea and bring all sorts of political issues onto the table. These demonstrations don't have a just cause and are impure," he says.

But who gets to decide which causes are just? South Korea's politics and society are polarized along generational lines. A recent Gallup Korea poll showsPresident Park's approval rating is 75 percent among voters over age 60 — but only 16 percent among South Koreans under 30.

International groups are calling for the country's diplomatic allies, like the U.S., to raise rights issues with the Park government. But so far, the most stinging criticism of South Korea's president is coming at home. Park is now being compared to her father — a military dictator who ruled South Korea with a heavy hand for nearly two decades.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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