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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights examines the report of the Republic of Korea

GENEVA (21 September 2017) - The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this afternoon concluded the review of the fourth periodic report of the Republic of Korea on measures taken to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Introducing the report, In-Jong Chang, Inspector General, Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Korea, said that the National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights was being developed to address not only the traditional human rights agenda but also the changes in the society caused by low fertility and population ageing; it would emphasize the right to health, the right to healthcare and the right to environment, and the protection of the socially vulnerable.  The Republic of Korea had become the first Asian country to enact a refugee law in 2013, and it had significantly increased its official development assistance, from USD 810 million in 2009 to USD 1.96 billion in 2016.  The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act of September 2016 was beginning to reduce the incidence of corruption in public life and measures were being taken to uphold the rights of migrant workers and other foreigners residing in the country.  The Government reinforced work-family balance policies, increased monthly benefits for the first three months of parental leave, increased the number of job centres aimed at women, and made continuous efforts to increase women’s representation in public life.  Minimum wage for 2018 had been increased by 16.4 per cent, and social security schemes had been strengthened, including through the adoption in August 2017 of the first Comprehensive Plan for Basic Living Security to further reduce poverty in the country. 

In the ensuing dialogue, Committee Experts asked about worker-employer relationships which were under strain as a result of legal restriction on the right to strike and the right to unionize.  They also asked about the situation of rights of irregular and contract workers employed by large corporations including conglomerates (“Chaebols”).  The low proportion of social spending came under scrutiny: the Republic of Korea spent only ten percent of its gross domestic product on social expenditure, half of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, leading to high rates of elder poverty – 49 per cent – and the need for greater investment in health and education.  Experts inquired about measures in place to address problems attributed to demographic change, namely low birth rates and population ageing, and the notable problem of elder suicide was discussed.  Experts also probed the delegation on the exemption from employment rights for agricultural workers under the Labour Standards Act, barriers to the extension of the protection from discrimination to sexual minorities, efforts to level the playing field and reduce inequalities in education, and measures to clean up polluted rivers.  Gender pay gap remained high, the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Experts said and went on to raise the issues of excessive working hours and the fact that birth registration was opened to nationals only.

In concluding remarks, Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Rapporteur for the Republic of Korea, thanked the delegation for its diligence in assisting the Committee in understanding the situation of economic, social and cultural rights in the country. 

In his closing statement, Inspector General In-Jong Chang underlined his country’s efforts to improve economic, cultural and social rights and stressed that the Republic of Korea, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, was committed to rights-based governance.

The delegation of the Republic of Korea included representatives of the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of Employment and Labour, Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Environment, and the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will next meet today at 3 p.m. to consider the third periodic report of the Republic of Moldova (E/C.12/MDA/3).

Report

The fourth periodic report of the Republic of Korea can be read here: E/C.12/KOR/4.

Presentation of the Report

IN-JONG CHANG, Inspector General, Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Korea, said the new administration that had taken office in May 2017 prioritized human rights as the cornerstone of State affairs and objectives.  A renewed National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights was being developed; it would address not only the traditional human rights agenda but also the changes in the society caused by low fertility and population ageing.  The Plan would emphasize the right to health, the right to healthcare and the right to environment, with more specific focus on strengthening civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights, and the protection of the socially vulnerable.  Moreover, the introduction of a new chapter on “business and human rights” with a view to encourage human-rights friendly business activities was being positively considered.  The National Human Rights Commission Act had been amended in February 2016 to stipulate specific qualification criteria for commissioners, ensure that people across different social sectors participated in the nomination and selection process, and to exempt commissioners from responsibility for any remarks made in the course of performing their duties.  The new administration was promoting the policy to bolster the capacity of the Commission to deliver on its functions.

The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act of September 2016 was beginning to reduce the incidence of corruption in public life, said the Inspector-General, while the Second Basic Plan on Immigration Policies of 2013 aimed to uphold the rights of migrant workers and other foreigners residing in the country.  The Republic of Korea had become the first Asian country to enact a refugee law in 2013 to ensure fair and effective recognition procedure and protect their rights.  Despite the difficult economic conditions, the country had acceded in 2009 to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and had been fulfilling its commitments in terms of the official development assistance, which had seen a steady increase from USD 810 million in 2009 to USD 1.96 billion in 2016, accounting for 0.14% of gross national income.  The Republic of Korea was committed to a steady and sustained increase in the official development assistance to eliminate inequality among States, said the Inspector General.

The 2011 Act on Gender Impact Analysis and Assessment ensured that policies were developed with a gender perspective thus contributing to greater gender equality.  The Government reinforced work-family balance policies, increased monthly benefits for the first three months of parental leave, increased the number of job centres aimed at women, and made continuous efforts to increase women’s representation in public life.  Regarding labour rights and working conditions, the Act on the Protection etc., of Fixed-Term and Part-Time Workers and the Act on the Protection etc., of Temporary Agency Workers had been amended to redress discrimination against non-regular workers.  More than 250 new labour inspectors had been hired in the last two years, minimum wage for 2018 had been increased by 16.4 per cent, and social security schemes had been strengthened, including through the adoption in August 2017 of the first Comprehensive Plan for Basic Living Security to further reduce poverty in the country.  The Government aspired to make high school free for all, efforts were being made to keep university fees to an affordable level and there were plans to foster the National Universities Hub starting in 2018.  The Act on Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions adopted in 2014 focused on national, ethnic and racial cultural diversity.

Questions from the Committee Experts

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Rapporteur for the Republic of Korea, asked about the involvement of civil society in the development of the latest national action plan on human rights and when the plan would be made public?  The Republic of Korea spent only ten percent of its gross domestic product on social expenditure - half of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average - what plans, if any, were there to increase this in the pursuit of human rights protection, for example in the areas of health and education?  Were there any plans to reform the tax regime so that the social spending can be increased? 

The Rapporteur was concerned that women were often obliged to care for children and the elderly, depriving them of their right to work and independence.  The poverty rates among the elderly, which stand at 49 per cent, were of great concern, said Mr. Kedzia, and went on to ask about the specific steps taken to address the demographic changes such as low birth rates and an ageing population.

The Rapporteur inquired about the steps to address the high rates of suicide in the rural areas, measures to raise the awareness of the Covenant among the judiciary, the legislative provisions in place to ensure that companies respected human rights, and about a prospect of an anti-discrimination legislation that would expand the prohibited grounds of discrimination to also include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons and people living with HIV/AIDS.
 
What measures, if any, had been taken to oblige businesses, including conglomerates (“Chaebols”) to take economic, social and cultural rights into account during their activities in the Republic of Korea or abroad?

What were the intentions concerning the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?

MARIA VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, noted the major problem of youth unemployment and inquired about measures taken to reduce it.  Recognizing the legislation aimed at helping women into work, the Chair asked whether it was applicable to small and medium-sized enterprises as well.  What progress was being made in preventing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace? 

Was the labour code sufficient to handle the increasing problems associated with outsourced and contract workers, she asked, and requested data on unionization and the minimum wage.  What protections were being put in place for migrant workers, particularly those in agriculture and fisheries, who appeared to be exploited and forced to work in poor conditions? 

Ms. Bras Gomes remarked on the country’s ageing population and asked about action taken to strengthen the social protections for the elderly.  The gender gap was huge and the highest among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries – how would it be tackled?

Another Expert wondered to what extent the military danger from the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea was inhibiting the country’s ability to extend full social protections to its citizens?

Other Committee Experts asked about the right to strike and why it was seemingly so difficult to organise legal industrial action.  What were the prospects of the Republic of Korea signing up to the core principles from the International Labour Organization with respect to the protection of workers?

The delegation was asked about the plans to amend the part of the labour code that excluded agricultural workers, if pension rights granted to couples would be extended to same-sex couples despite the absence of same-sex marriage, and the abolition of the legislation that discriminated against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.  Experts also requested the delegation to be very specific in the data regarding corruption in the Republic of Korea.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that the third National Action Plan on Human Rights would expand its remit to the rights and responsibilities of corporations and would take into account the changing demographics in the Republic of Korea.  The Government had held public hearings and had heeded the opinions of civil society organisations in the development of this plan.

The Republic of Korea ensured social protections to vulnerable groups including by increasing spending on healthcare.  As of April 2017, 4.7 million people were receiving benefits.

With regard to low fertility rates, the Government would address this issue in the framework of the national plan.  Employment insecurity, the high cost of education and health, and the changing notions of work-life balance fed into the picture, so the Government was tackling the problem with such measures as increasing child allowances, provision of housing to newlyweds, increase in childcare leave and others.

A delegate said that as a result of the measures taken, the suicide rates had fallen by 15 percent since 2011.  The Government was actively researching the reasons people were committing suicide and had put in place a “gate-keeper” suicide prevention initiative.

Old-age income insecurity was being tackled by increasing pensions in the coming years, and a broader enrolment in the national pension scheme was being pursued.

In terms of the legal status of the Covenant, the delegation explained that it had been incorporated into law and that the National Human Rights Commission had a mandate to intervene on the Covenant rights.  The size of this institution had been restored to its pre-2009 level and there were plans to further strengthen its functions.

A delegate said that the State assessed the risks of child labour and forced labour when it considered bids and project proposals from private companies and reassured the Committee that every partner was encouraged to practice human-rights based management.

Social controversy over same-sex relationships made it difficult to pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination law.  Civil society organisations were being consulted on how to move forward with this law, and they had organised a petition on supporting the new law.  As for the military-criminal law which prohibited same-sex activities in the military, the Constitutional Court had found it constitutional on the grounds of preserving discipline in the barracks.  This provision was being reviewed and might be abolished.  Sexual minorities were protected from discrimination under Article 11 of the Constitution, which prohibited discrimination, the delegate said.

The Constitutional Court had recognized foreigners as equal to citizens of the Republic of Korea in terms of basic rights, but this ruling did not yet apply to employment rights.

The Government had conducted analysis and assessment of gender equality measures and relevant ministries had been provided with recommendations to improve policies.  For example, the length of paternal leave had been equalised after such a process.

The Ministry of Justice had identified the gaps between the legal system of the Republic of Korea and the Optional Protocol to the Covenant and was actively looking into a possibility of ratification.

Responding to questions raised on work and employment, the delegation said that, in order to tackle youth unemployment, the Government had introduced a youth jobseeker allowance and other schemes.  Regarding women’s employment, affirmative action was in place in large companies and public bodies which had, for the first time, made public the proportion of women that they employed.  Maternity leave benefits had been expanded and flexible work arrangements were being promoted.  Those who considered that they had been unfairly dismissed could raise a case with the labour relations commission free of charge; if the case was upheld, restorative measures were imposed.

In terms of the working conditions, the delegation explained that job-sharing was not aimed at increasing part-time work but at decreasing an unacceptably long working hours.  The Government would like to define the maximum working week at 52 hours, and it would support small and medium-sized enterprises in trying to reduce total working hours per worker.  The minimum wage was increasing at a rate greater than other advanced countries. 

Migrant workers could only work at the company their visas were issued in connection with and could not change employers.  In the absence of specific protections for agricultural and livestock workers in the labour code, the Government had issued a standard contract that provided the necessary protections on a case-by-case basis.  Fishing companies were specifically banned from mistreating foreign or indeed any of their employees.  The Republic of Korea was not currently able to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

The Government had been pursuing measures to help workers and employers work through dispute without resort to strikes.  Although the labour code covered all basic work rights, the Republic of Korea was attempting to ratify the four remaining core conventions of the International Labour Organization.

Questions from the Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, Committee Experts asked why birth registration was opened only to citizens and not to foreigners, expressing concern that without a birth certificate it was very difficult to claim economic, social and cultural rights.  When would a universal birth registration system be put in place?

The delegation was asked whether the number of shelters for victims of domestic violence was sufficient to meet the need, the recognition of same-sex relationships, budgetary and other measures to strengthen the protection of abused children, and the long-term measures to ensure clean drinking water supply and to clean up polluted rivers. 

Experts asked what percentage of the 14.5 percent of the relative poor was covered by social protection schemes and if there were any plans to abolish the concept of the “obligatory provider” based on household. 

It was noted that the young people spent almost half of their income on housing, and the delegation was asked about long-term plans to ease the scourge of homelessness, and about specific measures, such as rent control legislation, to regulate costs in the private housing sector.

The costs of the national health insurance had risen, but the coverage remained the same.  In terms of the high suicide rates, would more funds be allocated to the mental health care and what was the “gate-keeper” suicide prevention plan?  Were there any measures contemplated to decriminalise abortion?  What was the provision under the national health insurance coverage for persons with HIV and for gender reassignment surgery?

In terms of inequality and wide disparities in education, an Expert sketched out possible gaps in the preschool childcare regimes and asked about measures in place to ensure an equal starting point for all children from birth.  What was being done to iron out the inequality in what families could and could not afford in terms of private lessons, to prepare their children for the university?

Experts asked what more could be done to promote gender equality in the society in general; the statistical evidence of multiculturalism in the society in the Republic of Korea; and the measures taken to positively promote the contribution of migrants to society and to enhance the economic, social and cultural rights of all people in the country.

Replies by the Delegation

Responding to the questions concerning social services and social protection, a delegate said that the new administration planned to drastically improve access to social services, and that social service corporations would be set up in the regions.  More public day-care centres would be built and greater subsidies would be made available to users of private child day-care centres, for example.  Private and public healthcare centres and hospitals would be boosted in a similar way.

The Government was actively reviewing business and human rights provisions in the third National Action Plan, which would include procurement guidelines intended to introduce a rights-based approach into enterprise management.  The provisions would be applicable to multinational and Korean companies operating abroad.  It terms of remedies for human rights violations by businesses, the delegation explained that all victims had the right to apply to a court in the Republic of Korea even if a violation was committed overseas.  Additionally, responsible investment guidelines were under review.

Irregular workers and indirectly-employed workers were protected by fair wage measures, while the Act on the Protection on Temporary Workers made employers liable for discrimination.  The Government was developing measures to protect people in special forms of employment.  Article 65 of the Labour Standards Act, which exempted workers in agricultural sector from certain rights such as rights to vacation and restricted working hours, had been applied because of the special conditions of agricultural work, but this was being reviewed.

Same-sex partnerships were not recognised in law, therefore survivor pension rights were not applicable in such cases.

Victims of crime, persons with disabilities, multicultural families and other disadvantaged and marginalised groups might receive pro bono legal aid to facilitate access to justice; starting next year, the scheme would include also low income groups.  The Korean Bar Association provided pro bono services to people in the regions.

The gender pay gap was attributed to a combination of structural factors and affirmative action schemes had been put in place to address it.  Discrimination against women in employment would be monitored under the new administration.  The statistics on corruption indictments were not available, however the new law on corruption would reduce it among high-ranking public officials, with more measures under consideration.

The birth registration law applied only to citizens of the Republic of Korea; widening this to undocumented migrant children would require social consensus building, said the delegation and reassured the Committee that such children were entitled to free primary education and vaccinations.

The Government supported a hotline and short-term emergency shelter for female victims of domestic abuse.  Housing was offered to female victims of violence, including domestic violence, and their families.  The new administration sought to increase penalties for domestic violence crimes.  Pan-governmental measures to prevent child abuse had been devised, including through awareness-raising campaigns which was funded to the tune of seven million South Korean Won.

A member of the delegation explained that the act on the social benefit provision was under the review and that the “obligatory provider” criteria would be abolished or phased out in the future.

The “gate-keeper” suicide prevention scheme targeted single senior citizens living in isolation; a designated “gate-keeper” was a concerned person who could observe signs of suicidal tendency in others.  Training was being provided to such “gate-keepers” who included teachers, police officers and military personnel.  The Government took a stern approach to this problem and President Moon Jae-in had recently ordered an urgent review.

Persons living in small or substandard housing were prioritised for rehousing into public accommodation.  The Government intended to stabilize the housing prices by building new housing stock from 2018 onwards; under the plan, 300,000 units tailored to the needs of newlyweds, and 200,000 units for the elderly would be built.  In order to protect renters’ rights, caps on deposits and rent rises would be introduced.

In response to questions raised about the pollution of waters and rivers, a delegate explained that dams and weirs were deployed to control polluting algae blooms in rivers.  Fundamental countermeasures to restore the health of rivers would start in 2019.  Blue-green algae was controlled in the drinking water supply with the use of advanced water treatment technologies.

The Government recognised that the numbers of people requiring national health insurance would grow in coming years and had proposed caps and subsidies in cases of extreme need.  The constitutionality of the prevention of abortion was respected and measures were in place to prevent unwanted pregnancies, including through family planning education.  Education and awareness-raising campaigns were in place to prevent discriminatory treatment of persons with HIV.  The national health insurance had not so far covered gender reassignment surgery but this matter was under review.

All children in the Republic of Korea had an equal right to education and this right was widely realised.  Primary and secondary education was free and compulsory for all, and efforts were being made to prohibit cram schools – the specialized for-profit schools that trained their students to meet particular goals most commonly to pass the entrance exam to high school or university.  To enhance women’s entry into science and engineering, various support measures were in place such as a mentoring scheme attended by some 10,000 female students, and women’s representation in educational leadership roles had been increased. 

Efforts were being made to enhance education services for children with disabilities, including to raise awareness in neighbourhoods where the public had objected to the siting of special schools.

Each year on 20 May, the Republic of Korea marked a “Together Day” which celebrated diverse cultural identities, while education campaigns on diversity were regularly undertaken.  Foreign nationals in the Republic of Korea were considered members of the Korean society, and free language and cultural understanding programmes were in place to help them integrate.  They were also supported with legal services. Korean nationals and non-nationals must respect each other’s traditions.  At present, 2.63 million foreign nationals of all categories resided in the country.

The Government supported access to the Internet by marginalised groups including the elderly by proving computers and other devices supplied with appropriate software, as well as an extensive training to reduce the digital divide.

Follow-up Questions from the Committee Experts

An Expert asked for further clarification on the subject of bad business practices injurious to workers’ rights, including those taking place by the Korean firms operating abroad, as well as on Article 63 of the labour code which exempted agricultural workers from protective conditions.  The Expert expressed exasperation that the delegation seemed unable to justify the denial of basic work rights to agricultural workers.

Committee Experts inquired about high levels of radiation illness occurring as a result of people living near nuclear power plants and what was being done about it, and whether the incidence of cancer among the population was linked with its dependence on nuclear power.

Legal costs in worker-employer disputes remained so high that they represented an obstacle to the exercise of workers’ rights, including the right to strike.  Why was so little being done to protect from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity when a poll had shown that 85 percent of the people in the Republic of Korea approved of equal treatment for sexual minorities?  Was there a legal review of the denial of birth registration to non-nationals who were subject to the provisions of the Covenant as much as nationals.

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Rapporteur for the Republic of Korea, remained puzzled about the involvement of civil society organization in the development of the third National Action Plan for Human Rights.  The scope of human rights assessments the Government said were being carried out before the awarding of contracts to private companies, such as those for palm oil in Indonesia where child labour had been used, was unclear, he said, stressing the obligation of the Republic of Korea to be proactive about its responsibilities under the Covenant.  The lack of statistics on corruption cases was troubling and it made the Government’s approach to fighting corruption seem problematic.

An Expert wondered if there was a discussion on widening the de facto limits on the right to strike, noting that this, and restrictions on trade union activity, were a matter of concern for the Committee.

MARIA VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, noted that many professions were exempted from working-hour limits, and asked if these exemptions were being reconsidered.  She said that the delegation’s answers on the problem of the gender pay gap were inadequate. 

Another Expert wondered about the Government’s response to the fact the siting of nuclear power stations was a matter of some public controversy in the Republic of Korea.

Replies by the Delegation

A delegate underlined that the development of the third National Action Plan had included submissions from various levels of society, including civil society groups.  The question of a formal framework that would encompass the participation of civil society groups was yet to be defined.

On businesses and human rights, a delegate said that the matter of legal liability between corporate headquarters and overseas subsidiaries was complex, although there was scope under the law to bring offenders to book.

The unilateral application of the Labour Standards Act across all sectors, including the currently exempt agricultural sector, would have affects that required further study. Migrant workers had the right to change employers in the agricultural sector if working and wage conditions changed for the worse.

The right to strike was fully protected in the Constitution, while reprisals by employers, such as stopping strikers’ pay, was limited under the law.  The Government sought to engender a spirit of partnership in worker-employer relations and continued to make efforts to stamp out unfair unemployment practices.  The law allowed employees – but not former employees - to join a trade union; the new administration was seeking to remedy this limitation under its commitment to ratify the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation. 

Irregular workers fell out of the definition of an “employee” under the Labour Standards Act, but the Government intended to enact a special law to afford protections to this group.  The Government reserved the right to restrict the right to strike among certain reserved professions, such as rail workers, consistent with international norms, and it intended to review this regime so as not to unreasonably restrict the right to strike.

Turning to the funding of the national health insurance scheme, a member of the delegation said the Government planned to raise the level of contributions in order to expand coverage as need demanded, but such increases would be capped according to the ability to pay.  The required funding boost of 36 billion South Korean Won would be realised through various financial resources.

The protection of sexual minorities was a matter of social discussion and there was a lack of consensus in this regard; discrimination against sexual minorities was in principle prohibited.  An improvement in the birth registration system was being addressed by a draft bill before the legislature.

 

The prevention of human trafficking was addressed by the law which had laid out criminal sanction for the buying and selling of human beings or their organs, and the aiding and abetting of the said crimes.  Foreign nationals with E6 visas, who generally worked in restaurants, were educated on their rights in an effort to combat human trafficking, forced labour and sex slavery.  Deportation of victims of trafficking was stayed, and official assistance was offered; this also applied to victims of forced marriage.  Medical, counselling and re-employment services were made available to forced sex workers.

The Constitution of the Republic of Korea enumerated economic, social and cultural rights in line with the Covenant, therefore rights were generally applied in the country.  The judiciary invoked the Covenant in its decisions, and information about it would be distributed further among the legal profession and the general public.

The Government had enforced the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act that sought to root out corruption among public officials; the lack of statistics on this matter would be reviewed.

Concluding Remarks

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Rapporteur for the Republic of Korea, thanked the delegation for its diligence in assisting the Committee understand the situation concerning economic, social and cultural rights in the country.  The Committee looked forward to further fruitful exchanges with the Republic of Korea. 

IN-JONG CHANG, Inspector General, Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Korea, thanked the Committee for its work and underlined his country’s efforts to improve economic, cultural and social rights.  The Republic of Korea, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, was committed to rights-based governance.

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