Republic of Korea: The Committee and the Korean delegation clash over conscientious objectors

Overview of 115th Session - Korea (webcast)

The review of the fourth periodic report of the Republic of Korea on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by the Human Rights Committee was completed on 23 October 2015. The interactive dialogue covered a wide range of issues including the abolishment of the death penalty, the Korean reservation to article 22 of the Covenant on freedom of association, the legal definition of terrorism and cyber-terrorism, overseas Korean companies using forced labour, conscientious objectors and discrimination against LGBTI persons. The Republic of Korea presented an impressive delegation of 42 representatives who were all engaged in the discussion with the Committee. Korean civil society was well represented including by a collation of 83 NGOs.

The reservation on article 22, which limits freedom of association for senior public officials, raised concerns amongst the experts who sought answers from the delegation as to why such a reservation was necessary. One of the experts mentioned that the reservation was so unclear that it could potentially be held to be void for vagueness. In response to these criticisms, the delegation explained that the reservation was only relevant to the involvement of high-ranking officials in decision-making.

The Committee and the delegation went back and forth on the abolishment of the death penalty – which has not been used since 1997 – with the delegates arguing that it was not easy to abolish because it has popular support. A handful of questions relating to detention centres were also raised by the Committee who criticized the use of protective devices as punishment tools, the regulations in force regarding solitary confinement, the overcrowding of prisons and the legal definition of torture in the Criminal Code.

On the disputed issue of conscientious objectors, the delegation and the Committee were not able to agree on the way forward. One of the experts pointed out that the lack of alternative to military service represented a refusal of the State party to fulfil its obligations under Article 18 of the Covenant. The delegation argued that the military service was a duty of its citizen and that the failure to comply could destabilize the country.

Finally, the delegation tried to reassure the Committee on the issue of overseas Korean companies and their use of forced labour. Allegations were raised regarding the Korea Minting and Security Printing Corporation and KOMSCO who are involved in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan. Reports of forced labour on Korean fishing ships were also raised. The Korean representatives acknowledged the problem and stated they were currently in the process of rectifying the situation through fact-finding investigations, the establishment new measures to improve the situation and close monitoring of their business operations overseas.

The Concluding Observations for which the State should provide information on the implementation within one year, concern:

  • Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Conscientious objection
  • Freedom of peaceful assembly

The next (5th) periodic report should be submitted by the State party by 6 November 2019.

Interview with ?Gayon Baek from People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), here

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