Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Korean
Main religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Won Buddhism, Chondogyo, Islam
Minority groups include Chinese and religious minorities.
Like its northern neighbour, the Republic of Korea, with a population of 51 million, is very homogeneous in linguistic and ethnic terms: other than recent immigrant groups, there is only a small Chinese minority. Foreign nationals amount to more than 1.3 million people, of whom around half are ethnic Chinese. The Chinese minority, previously concentrated mainly in the country’s largest cities such as Incheon, has increasingly tended to be concentrated in the capital, Seoul. In recent years, the longer established Chinese minority has also seen the arrival of migrant workers of Chinese background from other Asian countries. Including many Chinese, around half of the number of foreign nationals are migrant workers, who tend to be young, work in low-paying and unskilled jobs, and in some cases are vulnerable to exploitation.
Roughly 43 per cent of the country’s population claims to be religious, and the largest religious minority are Christians, who make up 28 per cent of the population (with Protestantism counting for 20 per cent and Catholicism 8 per cent). Buddhists number 15.5 per cent of the population, and smaller religious minorities include adherents of Chondogyo, Won Buddhism and Islam.
Updated April 2018.
South Korea’s UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in October 2012 highlighted both positive and negative developments with regard to discrimination against minorities. The government noted its efforts to ‘ensure that marriage immigrants adjust well to society’. It referred specifically to the Multicultural Family Support Act, which includes provisions for health care and education for ‘marriage immigrants’. Several states urged South Korea to improve treatment of migrants and refugees, and provide children of undocumented migrants with health care. NGOs expressed concern regarding the new Refugee Act, which became effective in July 2013. The Advocates for Public Interest Law noted a lack of any mechanism to assess the dangers a person could face upon return to his/her country of origin, and the Korean Bar Association has criticized the ‘accelerated’ procedures, which they believe could lead to abuse.
These issues remain relevant today. For South Korea’s third cycle UPR review in November 2017, stakeholders such as the National Human Rights Commission of Korea noted that government initiatives concerning migrants’ rights focussed largely on registered foreigners – leaving those unregistered and their children in a vulnerable situation. Foreign nationals are encouraged to register their children via their embassies, but refugees will generally be hesitant to approach their own countries’ representatives. Several stakeholders noted the continued lack of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.
Updated April 2018.
The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is an East Asian state located at the end of a peninsula jutting into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) on the north-eastern edge of China. Directly east, across the Korea Strait, lies Japan. South Korea’s northern border is shared with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and both were until 1945 part of Korea, a country occupied by the Japanese after 1910. The peninsula’s location away from the ancient migration routes of early populations may explain the country’s particularly homogenous ethnic makeup.
The history of South Korea and its treatment of minorities, especially religious minorities, is also the story of North Korea – at least until the two were separated at the end of the Second World War. As with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Buddhism’s minority status is linked to nearly 500 years of attempts to remove Buddhist influences and promote Confucianist ideals during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) until the occupation of Korea by Japan in 1910.
Christianity made slow inroads initially but became the largest religious grouping, though still a minority in the country: the first Roman Catholic missionary only arrived in Korea in 1785 and for almost 100 years the Joseon rulers largely tried to restrain or even prohibit the spread of Christianity. This changed after 1881, when Korea opened up to western countries and Protestant and other missionaries began to actively proselytise and open schools, hospitals and orphanages. Protestants were active in opposing the Japanese occupation, which may explain some of their growth in the country. Immediately before the start of the Japanese occupation, Christian minorities were particularly successful in the northern part of Korea. This changed at the end of World War II as many, if not most, of these Christians fled into South Korea.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a number of religious sects begin to form in Korea, one of which was to subsequently become quite widespread. Chondogyo, a syncretic Korean religious movement with roots in peasant uprisings of the previous century, was able to grow substantially in part as a native Korean response to the Japanese occupation, and its followers remain a significant minority in the country. Won Buddhism also appeared at the start of the same century. Combining elements of Mahayana and Zen Buddhism, Christianity and Neo-Confucianism, it has gained more than one million followers in South Korea since 1916, the year of its inception.
The division of Korea after World War II led to the creation of the Republic of Korea in 1948. The ensuing Cold War impacted directly on the Chinese minority, who faced restrictions on undertaking business and ownership of land during the rule of President Park Chung Hee (1961-1979). As a result, around 10,000 Chinese emigrated to the United States, Taiwan and other countries between 1972 and 1992.
In 1950, the Republic of Korea was invaded by the North Korean People’s Army. The United States called on the UN Security Council to act, and a UN force was assembled comprising largely of US, British and Commonwealth troops. The war led to considerable civilian and military casualties on both sides, but ended in a stalemate with a demilitarised zone established along the border between the two Koreas. Throughout the 1950s, South Korea was supported by the US and other western countries, enabling its survival and post-war reconstruction. South Korea was hardly a democracy, and human rights were often set aside during the first decades of its history. The country’s first president and then military leaders of successful coups ruled autocratically, sometimes brutally, using the pretext of the fight against communism. There was some relaxation after a military coup in 1961 under the leadership of General Park, although he increased his powers with constitutional changes in 1972. Following his assassination in 1979 and student demonstrations in 1980, which saw the army kill at least 200 demonstrators in Gwangju, further regime changes followed. South Korea moved closer towards a functioning democracy, but there were to be seven more years of dictatorship under General Chun Doo-hwan who seized power in 1980.
Huge economic development in the 1980s saw South Korea emerge as one of the world’s stronger economies. During the same period, there was growing pressure for political change and respect for human rights initiated to a degree by the revulsion felt by many at the actions of the government during the Gwangju massacre. Further unrest in 1987 and international pressure which built up to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul all appear to have contributed to the adoption of a new, more liberal constitution, eventually allowing for the direct elections of the country’s president.
Free elections in 1992 resulted in the election of Kim Young-sam as president, followed in 1997 by the election of an opposition politician, human rights activist and subsequent Nobel peace prize laureate, Kim Dae-jung. In addition to constitutional amendments and legislative changes which strengthened human rights protections during this period, a National Human Rights Commission was established in 2001.
However, strict national security legislation forbidding any praise for the regime in North Korea has remained in effect, and one academic was convicted in 2005 for questioning the legitimacy of South Korea. Some international human rights organisations raised concerns about the possibility of the law being used to limit freedom expression. More recently, in March 2017, the National Human Rights Commission released a report revealing ongoing discrimination facing North Korean defectors living in South Korea.
The legal context for minorities in South Korea has improved greatly as the country has moved towards greater incorporation and implementation of human rights guarantees as it became increasingly democratic. This has included ratification of a number of human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1990, which are directly applicable in courts under Korean law. In a general sense, South Korea’s human rights record has improved in recent decades.
For most religious minorities – except for small sects – this has meant no significant limitations of their rights nor widespread acts of discrimination. In addition to creating in 2001 a National Human Rights Commission, initiatives have been put in place to promote gender equality, including the establishment of the Ministry of Gender Equality. Some observers have criticized the fact that there has been no law defining or criminalizing racial discrimination, and hate speech disseminated by the media and on the Internet has not been regulated other than via punishments for defamation or insult under the Criminal Act. In February 2013, the Commission on Presidential Transition for President Park Geun-Hye publicly stated that a comprehensive anti-discrimination act would be enacted as part of its national agenda. However, due to opposition from anti-LGBTI organizations and conservative Protestants, two anti-discrimination bills proposed in the National Assembly in 2013 were withdrawn. In total, since 2007, five anti-discrimination bills have been proposed in the National Assembly, but none have been put to a vote. Currently, therefore, South Korean law only addresses discrimination on the basis of gender, disability and age.
In 2012, Jasmine Lee became the first naturalized Korean to win a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly. This marked an important symbolic step towards Koreans coming to terms with an increasingly ethnically diverse society. The government has also in recent years become increasingly accepting of multicultural families. However, several issues still remain for migrants including refugees and asylum seekers. Because of their status, newer arrivals such as migrant workers tend to have less legal protections than citizens. Non-Koreans are not fully protected from discrimination by private employers under the current legal system, with disputes over non-payment of wages common for migrant workers. Birth registration is also not consistently available for persons in refugee, asylum-seeking or irregular migration situations. Because of this, unregistered children born to undocumented migrants living in South Korea, who are estimated to be 17,000, cannot obtain health care, including basic vaccinations.
Updated April 2018.
Dasan Human Rights Center
May 18 Memorial Foundation
Minbyun – Lawyers for a Democratic Society
National Human Rights Commission of Korea
Sarangbang Group for Human Rights