S. Korea critics push for more action on human rights
Seoul — In Jae Keun was hoping to hold her husband's hand for first time in more than two years last Friday. Her husband, Kim Keun Tae, a prominent political activist, was high on the list of prisoners expected to be released in the general amnesty declared by South Korea's new government.
``Both my husband and myself had very high hopes this time. ... We were preparing for the release.'' Their hopes were dashed. ``We were very disappointed,'' she said.
The special amnesty was described by the government as the first fulfillment of President Roh Tae Woo's promises of democratic reforms. Opposition leaders welcomed the fact that several hundreds were pardoned or released.
But human rights organizations expressed their deep disappointment over the significant number who, like Mr. Kim, still remained in prison.
``Now, in this `new era of democracy and reconcilation,' we believe all such persons should be released,'' said Kim Dong Wan, director of the Human Rights Committee of the Protestant National Council of Churches of Korea.
In his inaugural address Thursday, Mr. Roh declared that ``the day when freedoms and human rights could be slighted in the name of economic growth and national security has ended.''
But the partial character of the release fuels doubts among government critics about how much has really changed in the transfer of power from former president, Gen. Chun Doo Hwan.
``It proves that in essence, this administration is no different from the last one,'' a Human Rights Committee statement said.
Most critics would not be so harsh. But even the government's own statements confirm the limits of the amnesty.
According to the government, the amnesty covered some 7,234 persons, including 1,712 ``public security offenders.'' These are persons arrested in connection with antigovernment demonstrations for labor organizing and for being ``subversives'' or ``communists,'' punishable under the National Security Act.
But most of those affected have been previously released and were offered various forms of clemency. By the government's count, only 131 people were actually released.
According to Mrs. In, who is a leader of the movement of families of prisoners, at least that many remain in jail. Another 216, by government count, are still under trial or awaiting trial. The government says it has retained only serious offenders who ``have perpetrated such felonies as murder, bodily injury, and arson during the course of demonstrations.'' Alleged offenders of other crimes whose cases are still on trial are also being held.
The particular case of Kim Keun Tae raises some questions about the government's stated desire to end the abuse of rights by the infamous internal security organs of the police and its central intelligence agency.
Kim's release was cited by US officials here as a bellwether of the amnesty. He was a student leader in the early 1970s, founding the National Youth Alliance for Democracy, an antigovernment student organization, in 1983. His 1985 arrest, says a Western diplomat, was not for any violent acts but simply for his beliefs. Two other prominent dissidents, Chang Ki Pyo and Lee Tae Bok, have also been kept jailed.
Kim's case has attracted international attention from groups like Amnesty International. According to credible reports, and his own trial testimony, Kim was severely tortured to extract a false confession. Last fall he and his wife received the Robert F. Kennedy human rights award.
Human rights activists, including Kim himself, see the continued influence of hardliners associated with Chun in the decision to keep activists imprisoned. Roh, they believe, is yielding to the people who fear the impact of disclosure of torture and other abuses. Roh retained in his Cabinet President Chun's ministers of justice and interior, along with the intelligence chief, who have ultimate responsibility for such cases.