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South Korea: Urgent reforms on right to privacy still needed despite significant progress, says UN expert

30 July 2019

GENEVA / SEOUL (30 July 2019) – Evidence of serious, systematic infringements of the right to privacy in South Korea has been found by UN Special Rapporteur Joseph Cannataci, together with significant progress on the issue.

“The evidence I have found relates to infringements by the National Police Agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the Defence Security Command up to late 2016 and possibly early 2017,” said UN privacy expert Cannataci, presenting a statement at the end of a visit to the country.

“I am however encouraged by significant progress achieved since June 2017, including the abolition of the domestic intelligence function within the NIS, the creation of a reform committee and several draft pieces of legislation aimed at a radical overhaul of the NIS. I am especially encouraged by the fact that the NIS, National Police Agency and the Ministry of National Defense all accepted responsibility for past mistakes and pledged to undertake all possible measures to prevent any recurrence.”

“The NIS possesses a number of privacy-intrusive technologies and is likely to reasonably want to expand its technological capabilities. A case could easily be made for these being proportionate measures in fighting organised crime, terrorism and espionage, but the legal framework and safeguards are seriously inadequate,” Cannataci said. 

“It is therefore essential that South Korea by no later than mid-2020, introduces the right safeguards, especially in the oversight of surveillance capabilities and intelligence to ensure that legitimate security concerns are addressed while ensuring the protection of the peoples’ right to privacy.

“An essential element of oversight already exists in the important work carried out by the Intelligence Committee of Korea’s National Assembly. But that is insufficient as the Intelligence Committee does not possess either the legal ability or the resources to fully audit the conduct of a specific case, and does not have full access to the contents of case files. 

“I therefore recommend the urgent creation of a new independent full-time body whose work should complement that of the Intelligence Committee. This new independent entity should contain a blend of senior judges, ICT technical staff and experienced domain experts in sufficient numbers and with the full authority to carry out spot-checks of both intelligence agencies and the police services, in order to assess whether surveillance is legal, necessary and proportionate and does not arbitrarily infringe upon people’s privacy,” Cannataci said.

The Special Rapporteur worked closely with both Government officials and civil society during his visit to investigate and make recommendations about a wide variety of issues, from measures to avoid privacy infringements of HIV-positive prisoners, to the use of CCTV in child-care centres, and LGBTQI rights in detention centres. 

He also expressed serious concern that LGBTQI individuals could not serve in the armed forces without fear of violence and harassment, and that they were subjected by their superiors to degrading questioning about their private lives, which should be of no concern to them or to the State.

“Considering that military service is compulsory for all men in the Republic of Korea, I am appalled to learn that virtually every non-heterosexual man will have to endure such a regime of fear for a minimum of 21 months of his life.I am therefore recommending that Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act be promptly repealed and that members of the Armed Forces be trained in sexual diversity,” he said. 

The Special Rapporteur also expressed serious concern about the illegal and unjustifiable invasion of privacy, both individual and collective, of survivors and families of the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 and other activists who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of assembly.

Another area of progress, noted by the Rapporteur, is data protection legislation where he recommended the reinforcement of the independence of the Personal Information Protection Commission.

The Special Rapporteur will continue his assessment and invites further contributions from civil society to be received by mid-September 2019. These will include historic cases of invasion of privacy, some of which remain sub-judice.

He will present a comprehensive report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2020.


Mr. Joseph Cannataci (Malta) was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy by the Human Rights Council in July 2015. He is an academic who has had a pioneering role in the development on data protection, privacy law and technology law. A UK Chartered Information Technology Professional & Fellow of the British Computer Society, he also continues to act as Expert Consultant to a number of international organisations.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 


UN Human Rights, Country Page – Republic of Korea

For more information and press inquiries, please contact:
During the visit: Mr. Jon Izagirre Garcia (+41 79 444 4552);
In Geneva (before and after the visit): Mr. Jon Izagirre Garcia (+41 22 917 97 15 /[email protected]) or [email protected].

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts: 
Mr. Jeremy Laurence – Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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