Inheriting the Spirit of Korea's First Human Rights Lawyers

MINBYUN – Lawyers for a Democratic Society was established by a small group of activists who began their careers working on critical human rights and civil rights projects in South Korea.

The first generation of human rights lawyers struggled to preserve human rights in Korea during the so-called Yushin regime in the 1970s. The founding members included Lee Byung-Lin, Lee Don-Myung, Han Seung-Hun, Cho Joon-Hee, Hong Sung-Woo and Hwang In-Chul. In the 1980s, the organization gained four additional members[1].

Following the joint pleading for flood disaster victims in Mangwon-dong in 1984 and solidarity strikes in Guro-dong in 1985, which sought government compensation for victims of the flood and improvement of labor conditions, respectively, lawyers decided to form an organization, Jeong-Beop-Hoe, to fight for justice in May 1986. Jeong-Beop-Hoe, which stands for ‘Lawyers for the Realization of Legal Justice’, included representatives from both the first and second generation human rights lawyers, in addition to nineteen other members.[2]

Moreover, Jeong-Beop-Hoe actively worked to defend human rights through the Human Rights Committee of the Korean Bar Association, working tirelessly to publicize the repressive acts of the Chun Doo-Hwan administration which was eventually brought down by people in 1987. Some high profile abuses publicized by Jeong-Beop-Hoe include the torture of dissident leader Kim Geun-Tae and the infamous sexual torture case that occurred during an interrogation at the Bucheon Police Station. Some members such as Lee Don-Myung, Lee Sang-Soo and Roh Moo-Hyun were even arrested for their active roles in the democratization movement.

In the 1987, Roh Tae-Woo, a central culprit in the 1980 massacre of what would later be known as the Gwangju Democratization Movement, was elected to the presidency. Immediately following the election, Chung-Byun, which stands for ‘Association of Young Lawyers’, was founded to lead the national democratization movement, with the specific aims of reunification, democracy and autonomous rule. The association consisted of seven lawyers: Lee Seok-Tae, Kim Hyung-Tae, Cho Yong-Han, Yoo Nam-Young, Park Yong-Seok, Lim Hee-Teak and Son Gwang-Woon, who worked with six members of Jeong-Beop-Hoe[3]. Although Jeong-Beop-Hoe and Chung-Byun were established with their own distinct identities, the two groups eventually agreed to join forces in 1988.

On May 28, 1988, MINBYUN was founded with 51 members, making it the first legal movement organization with the distinct purpose of fostering democracy in Korea. MINBYUN’s foundation enabled Korean human rights lawyers to collaborate and to create a more organized, professional movement for justice in Korea.

Early Developments: Achievements During the Chaotic Period, Clearing the Remnants of Dictatorships

MINBYUN was established during one of Korea’s most repressive regimes — the Roh Tae-Woo dictatorship of the Sixth Republic. This era was marked not only by a repression of basic human rights, but also by violence against those who publicly criticized the government. MINBYUN therefore sought to fill the critical gap in legal representation for activists, particularly those activists resisting the Roh dictatorship.

MINBYUN was immediately inundated with requests for legal defense, including the high profile torture-to-death case of Park Jong-Chul, the sexual-torture case of Kwon In-Sook at Bucheon Police Station, and the unapproved visit to North Korea taken by Lim Soo-Kyung and Rev. Moon Ik-Hwan. MINBYUN defended a number of clients who violated the National Security Act (NSA), including the Socialist Workers Alliance of Korea, a group committed to creating a socialist society, and the Seoul Social Science Research Institute, which produced research on both Marxism and socialism.

MINBYUN assisted in several high profile investigations, including the political surveillance of civilians conducted by the Defense Security Command in 1990, which was revealed by Private Yoon Seok-Yang. MINBYUN likewise investigated the case of Kim Ki-Sul’s[4] last will and testament, which some suspected was ‘ghostwritten’ by Kang Ki-Hoon. MINBYUN also investigated the famous 1993 case of Kim Sam-Suk and his sister Kim Eun-Joo, whom the National Intelligence Service (NIS) accused of being spies from North Korea. It was later found that the siblings were innocent, and the NIS had knowingly tortured the pair to elicit false confessions. 

MINBYUN simultaneously cooperated with the Min-Ga-Hyup Human Rights Group and the Association of Physicians for Humanism, two social activist organizations which were established to realize social reforms and to take action on critical human rights issues, such as the release of prisoners of conscience.

MINBYUN led protest demonstrations to support the authors of “Understanding of Korean Society” when the government accused them of violating the National Security Act. MINBYUN steadily advocated for the release of prisoners of conscience and tried to shape public opinion by working together with other organizations.

Although democracy ostensibly progressed under the Kim Young-Sam administration, many repressive laws remained and the so-called public safety and security agencies continuously undermined human rights and other basic freedoms. MINBYUN accused the Kim Yong-Sam administration of using the civilian government as a front to infringe upon the peoples’ fundamental rights.

In 1995, the Kim Young-Sam administration began to abandon its initial cursory reforms, as well as its focus on rectifying past wrongdoings. The administration began to allow indulgences for 19 leaders of past military regimes, including Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tea-Woo. MINBYUN continued to dispute the government’s handling of past atrocities, and subsequently filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of prosecutors’ non-indictment decision regarding the violent attacks on demonstrators at the Gwang-Ju Democratization Movement in May 1980. MINBYUN was concurrently promoting the passage of the Special Act on the May Democratization Movement, which suspended the statute of limitations for those who led the massacre against the protesters. On 26 December 1996, when the ruling party passed the National Intelligence Service Act and the Labor Law in haste, MINBYUN lawyers held a vigil against the passage, publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘Disclosing Vestiges of the Past Authoritarian Government,’ which sought to nullify those pieces of legislation.  

The Late 90′s – Solidifying its Role as a Progressive Legal Expert Group

In December 1997, Kim Dae-Jung was elected to the presidency. This marked the first time that the ruling party transferred power to a democratically elected opposition victor. As South Korea’s democratic mechanisms developed, the need for MINBYUN to act as a legal defendant of human rights was reduced, leading the organization to re-conceptualize itself, primarily as a leading progressive and reformative association.

Internally, thirty to forty new lawyers joined MINBYUN every year and MINBYUN eventually grew to over three hundred members holding various backgrounds and interests. Externally, while the work environment for lawyers had changed, many other civil organizations were growing.

In response to the country’s socio-political changes and the demand for diversified activities, MINBYUN began to concentrate its efforts on public interest litigation while reinforcing its status as a human rights organization. MINBYUN established the Public Litigation Committee, appointing Lee Seok-Tae as the first chairman for this committee. The committee processed an array of public interest litigation; for instance, it managed class action lawsuits seeking compensation for aircraft noise in Gimpo International Airport, for victims of cigarette smoking, and for flood damage

Korean civil society benefited greatly from the organization of Citizens’ Solidarity for General Election (CSGE), which produced remarkable outcomes during the 2002 General Election. During the public recommendation, parties consulted CSGE for its opinions to choose their nominees. MINBYUN helped promote the work of CSGE by providing the organization with legal support, and through this work, MINBYUN soon became widely recognized as a reputable legal organization. Furthermore, MINBYUN filed a counter-suit in response to a suit that had been filed byt some of the nominees who had not been recommended by CSGE and sought to dismiss their nominations.  

To realize the establishment of a national human rights commission, as the Kim Dae-Jung administration had promised, MINBYUN, with the help of other civil organizations, created the Joint Action Committee. Together they held a public hearing to discuss legislation of the National Human Rights Commission Act, which would establish laws to govern the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. Since 2001, MINBYUN has hosted the Human Rights Conference of Korea as part of its annual Human Rights Week events. The conference, an amalgamation of various organizations and individuals, focused on human rights conditions and issues while striving to foster human rights awareness in the daily lives of Koreans.

Leading Social Reform in the 21st Century

In the 2002 elections, Roh Moo-Hyun, a former member of MINBYUN, was elected to the presidency. Following an attempt to impeach President Roh in 2004, reformative actors began gaining majority seats in the National Assembly for the first time. MINBYUN began to carve out a more significant role in national politics as its members increasingly gained seats in the National Assembly, as well as other public positions. This increase in membership produced an air of anxiety and confusion as MINBYUN’s position as an independent civil organization was called into question.

On the other hand, as the reformative powers began to hold sway in the National Assembly, public expectation increased in terms of clearing the remnants of past dictatorships and implementing democratic legislative reform. Intense debate emerged throughout the country regarding the national project to correct past wrongdoings, as well as the so-called ‘four reformative legislations — the National Security Act, the Private School Law, the Basic Act on Clarification of Past Wrongdoing for Truth and Reconciliation, as well as seven laws concerning the media[5]. MINBYUN’s Judicial Reform Committee and Judicial System Reform Committee  directed various reforms of the country’s judiciary, such as amendment of the Criminal Procedure Law and introduction of the law school system and the jury system. As judicial reforms were carried out, MINBYUN did not hesitate to assist with problem resolution or to exert its role as a progressive legal expert organization.

MINBYUN protested the hasty negotiations made during the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) regarding U.S. beef imports. MINBYUN likewise defended the victims of unfair dismissal by the E-land Group, while promoting the passage of the Protection of Non-regular Workers Law. When Kim Yong-Chul, a former leading lawyer of Samsung Group, publicly disclosed that Samsung Group raised a slush fund and bribed prosecutors and other public officers, MINBYUN led the charge against Samsung.

20-Year-Old MINBYUN Takes Its Ceaseless Step

In 2008, MINBYUN celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Looking back over the last two decades, MINBYUN has been able to not only evaluate its accomplishments and shortcomings but also adjust its organizational role and plan of action to best suit Korea’s rapidly transforming society.

MINBYUN strives to create a society in which human rights are preserved, laws are just, and the judiciary is fair. Therefore, MINBYUN will continuously monitor human rights violations as well as the judiciary, propose reformative legislations, advocate for peace and reunification, and promote international solidarity. MINBYUN will also strive to increase its research and investigative proficiency by introducing systematic modifications and employing several full-time lawyers who will work exclusively in MINBYUN’s secretarial office. 

In 2008, Korean society endured the most demanding period in the previous decade. Agitated by the government’s refusal to halt U.S. beef imports, Koreans throughout the country began holding peaceful candlelight vigil demonstrations. The public’s eager participation in the vigils served as a testament to the Korean peoples’ commitment to democracy. MINBYUN led a class litigation to file a constitutional petition with the Constitutional Court, challenging the constitutionality of the cursory examination of imported U.S. beef with a hundred thousand people acting as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Moreover, MINBYUN kept its focus on the human rights violations occurring during the vigils, while providing pro-bono consultation and legal defense to thousands of those arrested. Because many of the laws and principles of the Lee Myung-Bak administration criminalize a wide range of behaviors — dissent in particular — many peaceful activists and concerned citizens have subsequently been labeled as suspects and criminals, making MINBYUN one of the country’s busiest legal organizations.

With passion and resolve from its inception, the mission of MINBYUN has always been a pursuance for democratic society. The history of MINBYUN continues to unfold.


[1] Cho Young-Rae, Lee Sang-Soo, Park Sung-Min, and Park Won-Soon

[2] These members were: Kang Shin-Ok, Koh Yung-Gu, Yoo Hyun-Suk, Lee Don-Hee, Lee Hae-Jin, Choi Young-Do, Ha Kyung-Chul, Kim Dong-Hyun, Kim Sang-Chul, Park Yong-Il, Seo Ye-Kyo, Ahn Young-Do, Yoo Young-Hyuk, Ha Jook-Bong, Park Youn-Chul, Park In-Jae, Park Chan-Joo, Choi Byung-Mo, and Kim Choong-Jin.

[3] Park Won-Soon, Lim Jae-Youn, Lee Won-Young, Park In-Jae, Lee Yang-Won, and Baek Seung-Hun.

[4] Kim Ki-Sul was an activist and member of the National Alliance for the Democratization of Korea. Kim set himself alight to draw attention to his cause, and subsequently died.

[5] The Act on the Freedom of Newspapers, etc. and Guarantee of Their Functions; the Broadcasting Act; the Radio Waves Act; the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection, etc.; the Internet Multimedia Broadcasting Business Act; the Act on the Press Arbitration and Damage Redemption, etc.; and the Special Act on Digital Television Transition and Digital Broadcasting.