Grappling with rights abuses in S. Korea. Activists say reforms have not reached repressive security system

Before activist Kim Keun Tae was sent to prison in 1985, he was followed 24 hours a day by three agents of the Korean intelligence agency. This fall the longtime dissident leader, whose torture and imprisonment became an international issue, was finally released in an amnesty. ``Now I am not being followed,'' says the soft-spoken Mr. Kim, ``but I believe my telephone is being tapped.''

This is how one dedicated opponent of the South Korean government measures the change brought about by the democratization of political life since the summer of 1987.

Kim sees a tangible lifting of the blanket of fear of political repression in his country. His view is shared by lawyers and human rights activists.

But, such critics also say, the process of reform has not yet penetrated the structure of control that has been in place for so many years.

``I can feel a change on the surface,'' says Cho Chun Hee, vice-chairman of the Korean Bar Association's Human Rights Committee. ``But I don't see fundamental change in our justice system.''

In coming months, South Korean lawmakers and political parties will be turning their attention to such reforms. On the agenda are the treatment of political prisoners, the reform of several laws that have been used to control and punish political dissidents in the past, and the functioning of the feared intelligence agency.

The government and ruling party have recently proposed reforms of these institutions and laws. But the three opposition parties, who jointly have a majority in the National Assembly, have their own stance. A special legislature committee is scheduled to take up these issues shortly.

The government is preparing an amnesty for political prisoners, the most visible legacy of the previous military-dominated regime of former President Chun Doo Hwan. This is the fourth amnesty since June 1987, when President Roh Tae Woo, then the ruling party leader, announced a sweeping package of reforms in response to violent mass protests that rocked the nation.

Human rights organizations are skeptical about the coming release of prisoners. According to the Human Rights Committee of the Protestant National Council of Churches (NCC), the previous amnesties have resulted in the early release of only 170 people. Another 200 were released after completing their sentences.

The Rev. Im Kwang Bin, a member of the NCC panel, charges that the government ``has been arresting as many people as they are letting go.'' The committee says that, as of last month, there are 534 political prisoners, excluding those held as ``spies.''

According to the Justice and Peace Committee of the Roman Catholic Church, most of the detainees now are students and workers, rather than underground dissidents. Many have been arrested for participating in demonstrations, mostly for crimes such as obstructing the police or for violating the Law on Assembly and Demonstration, a longtime tool in suppressing dissent.

``On the surface, nobody is being arrested for thinking,'' says Mr. Cho, the lawyer. ``But if you examine the cases, many times they were arrested because of political attitudes or beliefs.''

The most controversial target of legislative reform is the National Security Act, the main instrument for curbing dissent in the past. The law was originally aimed at suppression of communist organizations but has been used to cover all kinds of antigovernment activity. It very loosely defines ``antistate organizations'' as any group with the purpose of becoming the government or ``disturbing the state.''

The provision most often used to silence dissent is Article VII, which makes it punishable with up to seven years' imprisonment to ``support,'' ``encourage,'' or ``endorse'' an antistate organization. Under this provision, a student can be jailed for saying he favors a North Korean proposal for unification with the South. Another article dealing with the meetings and communication with antistate organizations would, if enforced, bar a meeting between President Roh and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

The proposed amendment of this law narrows the definition of antistate organization to exclude communist countries other than North Korea. This is aimed in part at facilitating South Korea's active diplomacy with China, the Soviet Union, and other communist states.

The reform law would also loosen restrictions on trade and travel to the North, access to North Korean literature, and exchanges of letters with relatives in the North. The government has proposed such contacts as part of its policy of improving relations with the North.

The Korean Bar Association is sharply critical of these changes, saying the vague terminology of the law bars such activity if it is carried out with the intent to aid North Korean aims.

``Such a law is susceptible to abuse because the government can interpret it anyway it wants to,'' Mr. Cho says. ``It is legal to read books, but it is illegal to read them with the intent to `praise, support, or endorse North Korea.'''

Human rights organizations also feel the revision is aimed at maintaining government control over the issue of reunification of Korea, an issue that has been pushed by the left as a nationalist cause.

The Bar Association and the human rights organizations call for complete abolition of the National Security Act, arguing that other laws provide ample means for controlling espionage. They are critical of the opposition parties for leaning toward a less stringent position.

An equally controversial problem is the law governing the functioning of the Agency for National Security Planning, formerly called the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. The agency has been deeply involved in domestic politics: spying on dissidents, arrest and torture of antigovernment activists, and enforcing press censorship.

Even before his election last December, President Roh had pledged to end the agency's role in domestic politics and confine it to external threats. The government recently backed the recommendations of a presidential commission that would limit the agency's internal role to investigating sedition and ``communist-related activites.'' It would be required to remain politically neutral and would no longer enforce the National Security Act.

The opposition seeks to restrict the agency solely to collecting information and to overseas activity. ``What the government is planning to do is keep this agency with slight modification,'' charges Lee Chul, an independent opposition Assemblyman. ``It proves they still need this agency to maintain their regime.''

What is at stake, claim longtime activists like Kim Keun Tae, is the future of democratization. Without deep reforms, he says, ``there is a danger that history will start going backwards.''

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