London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Amnesty International on Human Rights in North and South Korea

Rajiv Narayan’s talk at Chatham House last week about Amnesty International’s activities and concerns on the Korean peninsula was timely but yet somehow seemed to miss the point.

I was reminded about the story of a drunk who was found grovelling on the pavement underneath a streetlamp at 3am. A concerned passer-by asked him what he was doing. “Looking for my wallet. I dropped it in that dark alleyway over there.” “So why aren’t you looking for it in the alley?” was the obvious question. “Because I can see better over here, where the light is”.

So, because Amnesty has access to the South and no access to the North1 Narayan seemed to spend much longer talking about the South than about the North. And if you check the Amnesty website, there are 72 reports on South Korea and only 15 on the North.

Or maybe it’s just my recollection of the talk. I didn’t actually time the two sections. Maybe we hear and read so much about abuses in the North that hearing about the (admittedly much less serious) human rights agenda in the South simply sticks in the mind better.

Narayan articulated the main issues which Amnesty is focusing on in relation to the South:

  • Rights for the large numbers of migrant workers2
  • The National Security Law
  • Conscientious Objectors, with Amnesty campaigning for some form of non-military national service (currently conscientious objectors are liable to imprisonment) (See further the update at the bottom of this post)
  • The death penalty. The South’s last execution was in 1997, so use of the death penalty is now rare, and there are proposals to abolish it, which if carried out would make South Korea the first country in the region to do so.

Amnesty has come a long way in South Korea. In the 1980s they were disbanded, and now they have 5,000 members.

Amnesty International members in Korea protest against the death penalty
Amnesty International members in Korea protest against the death penalty

Narayan also described Amnesty’s engagement with the North. They were allowed access in 1991 (in an attempt to persuade the North to adopt international human rights standards) and again in 1995 to discuss executions and the death penalty. No access has been permitted since. Amnesty’s concerns are well documented in the links provided below.

And I’ve fallen into the same trap: spending much more time talking about the South. So I’ll redress the balance in the links below.



  1. and I guess the way to get access to the North is precisely NOT to go on too much about such sensitive topics as human rights []
  2. see N.E.P.A.L, Park Chan-wook’s contribution to If you were me, and Jongno, Winter, Kim Dong-won’s contribution to If you were me 2 []

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