Dedicated to Furthering Democracy in South Korea
MINBYUN – Lawyers for a Democratic Society is an NGO with special consultative status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNECOSOC) and strives to further the development of democracy in Korea through litigation, research, and investigation. To this end, MINBYUN is also dedicated to increasing public awareness and collaborating in joint activities to protect basic human rights and attain social justice.
MINBYUN consists of more than 900 lawyers as of March 2014 from all parts of South Korea. The headquarters is located in Seoul, and there are 8 branch offices: Busan, Daegu, Ulsan, Gwangju-Jeonnam, Daejeon-Chungcheong, Jeonju-Jeonbuk, Incheon and Gyungnam. MINBYUN has 13 committees that represent a wide range of activities in the various fields of human rights and 6 staff teams in the secretariat to assist with the entirety of its activities.
Committees and their Activities
MINBYUN’s Labor Committee is as old as the organization itself, and has remained true to its stated purpose to advocate on behalf of and protect the rights of laborers, who are widely perceived as second-class citizens in modern Korean society. With a total of eighty-five members, the Labor Committee is the largest within MINBYUN.
The committee has weekly regional meetings in Seoul to discuss urgent, pending issues, as well as quarterly plenary meetings, which rotate between the six regional branches in Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, Daegu, Ulsan, and Daejeon. The quarterly meetings are a useful forum for discussing current labor disputes, and they typically include guest lecturers or presentations of members’ research. These meetings are invaluable to advancing organizational understanding of current labor issues and promoting collective problem solving.
The committee holds regular seminars which allow for research presentations and presentations concerning MINBYUN’s legal positions on key labor issues. MINBYUN occasionally cooperates with labor unions to develop strategies for matters of mutual interest or to investigate common areas of concern. Additionally, the committee has annual international solidarity meetings with the Osaka Lawyers Union for Labor, a Japanese lawyers association. Together, they analyze and discuss the labor case trends in Korea and Japan, as well as changes in labor law legislation. The committee proactively addresses pending labor issues and collaborates with other organizations to address any challenges faced. The committee provides legal assistance for labor lawsuits, while also monitoring the labor administration.
The committee regularly publishes a series called Labor Law Explained by Lawyers andReview on Labor Precedents to introduce its findings on precedents dating from 1996.
U.S. Military Issues Committee
The U.S. Military Issues Committee was established in early 2001 in order to more systematically examine and address the problems associated with the United States military presence in Korea. Public interest concerning the U.S. military has increased significantly in recent years, owing to a number of tragic mishaps: the mistaken bombing in Maehyang-ri in 2000, the disposal of toxic waste in the Yongsan U.S. military base, the oil spill on a U.S. base in 2001, problems regarding military vehicles without number plates, and the death of Chun Dong-Rok by electric shock near a U.S. military base.
Consisting of twenty members, this committee studies domestic law related to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the United States and the Republic of Korea and scrutinizes all lawsuits involving the U.S. military in Korea. In addition to pursuing litigation, the committee cooperates with related organizations to prevent and minimize the detrimental effects that the U.S. military presence may have on the Korean people. Furthermore, the committee formed specialized subset groups to address specific concerns such as the 2002 armored vehicle accident that killed two middle school students, the beheading of Kim Sun-Il, and the relocation of the U.S. military base to Pyeongtaek City. As of 2010, the committee is focusing its efforts on resolving problems with the U.S.-Korea peace agreement, defense expense share, and environmental pollution from the U.S. military bases.
The Media Committee is committed to developing and advancing new, alternative policies to strengthen the media’s role in promoting democracy in Korea. The committee cooperates with other media organizations to promote a media legislation reform movement.
Committee members are engaged in a wide range of activities, from participating in media-related panel discussions to contributing to the media-monitoring component of the Korean Bar Association’s Human Rights Report. Members of the Media Committee also serve as members on the Publication Ethics Committee, the Broadcasting Committee of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and the Viewer Commentary Committees of various broadcasting institutes.
As part of an effort to increase newspaper transparency, the committee rejected the Act on Types of and Criteria for Unfair Trade Practices in the Newspaper Industry and the Act on the Freedom of Newspaper, etc. and Guarantee of Their Functions. Furthermore, the committee holds that the current Broadcasting Act ought to be amended.The committee also voices strong disapproval of the adoption of the ‘Internet Real-Name System’ and the ‘Electronic Identification Card’–regulations which violate the right to privacy.
The committee applauds the Public Information Act, which makes governmental information and communications strategies available to the public. The committee also supports the Act on the Press Arbitration and Damage Redemption, etc. which protects people from defamation of character.
Women’s Rights Committee
Consisting of forty-nine members, the Women’s Rights Committee was formed in 1999 and embarked on its campaign for the protection of women’s rights and the improvement of welfare. The committee was then chosen as an Exemplary Committee in 2004.
Throughout 2002, the committee worked as one group; however, since 2003, it has divided itself into six subsets/teams that specializes in one of the following areas: family law, abolishing prostitution and sex trafficking, preventing violence against women, poverty and women labor, publication and planning, and membership management. By creating these specialized teams, the committee has been able to promptly respond to current issues, while improving the committee’s management and efficiency.
The committee is eager to cooperate with related non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The eighteen-member Reunification Committee is grounded in the premise that the reunification of the Korean peninsula is perhaps the most critical issue that Koreans face. The committee meets on a monthly basis and studies laws regarding inter-Korean relations and cooperates with related organizations.
The committee played a significant role in completing the Inter-Korea Exchange and Cooperation Act and Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation Pact. In the Joint Declaration made during the North-South Summit Talks on 15 June 2000, South Korea and North Korea recognized that the formula for reconciliation would necessarily involve a balance between the South’s reunification police, known as the Confederation and the North’s, known as Federation of Low Stage. Therefore, South Korea acknowledged the existence of the North’s regime as a reality, and the two respective leaders agreed to promote reunification in that direction. The committee has closely examined the legal foundation of the Joint Declaration to provide a blueprint for future reunification.
In October 2005, the committee and other members of MINBYUN visited historic sites in Pyongyang and watched an Arirang performance.
Despite these advances, the committee has struggled under the Lee Myung-Bak administration’s withered relationship with North Korea, as well as with the problems presented by the administration’s National Security Act.
The Environment Committee advocates for environmental preservation. The committee publishes a sourcebook of environmental lawsuit cases and manages a learning resource center for environmental litigation. Externally, the committee provides legal support for environmental protection projects and cooperates with other activist groups to file environmental public interest litigation. For example, the committee oversaw a class action lawsuit seeking compensation for noise pollution emitted from Gimpo International Airport, as well as a lawsuit against the government regarding the Saemangeum Tidal Flat Reclamation.
On November 2, 2005, a resident vote deciding on the construction of a radioactive waste disposal facility was held in Busan. The committee exposed an illegal voting process and subsequently filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of the voting result with regard to the Resident Voting Act Article 8. In 2010, the Environment Committee also filed a lawsuit regarding air pollution in Seoul.
The committee, working alongside other civic organizations, also took legal action regarding a 2007 oil spill near the Taean coast, in which a crane barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries collided with the anchored crude carrier, the Hebei Spirit. In addition to the lawsuit, the committee asked the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPC) to compensate residents for damages resulting from the accident.
Correction of Past Wrongdoings Committee
The Correction of Past Wrongdoings Committee studies human rights violations that occurred as a result of the government’s abuse of power, coordinates and manages lawsuits to this effect, and exposes abuses of judicial power. The committee’s primary concern is the negative, residual effect that wrongdoings of the past may have on Korean society and is therefore involved in the reformation of related laws, as well as the reorganization of government committees involved in this field.
After the government’s Committee for the Clarification of the Past released its final report, the committee analyzed the report in order to assess whether it was necessary to undertake any legislative action.The committee also publishes a lawsuit sourcebook of human rights violations that occurred under the Japanese occupation of Korea, such as the Korean ‘comfort women’ and the forced draft during World War II. The year 2010 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula, and the committee used the anniversary as an opportunity to increase both awareness and lawful assessments of Japanese colonial abuses.
The Judiciary Committee monitors the actions of the Presidential Commission on Judicial Reform and acts as a mouthpiece for MINBYUN’s positions on judicial reform programs (e.g. law school system, jury system, principle of a public trial, and the Supreme Court trial procedure reform). The committee cooperates with other civil and social organizations to host panel discussions, which analyze and challenge the appointment of the Justices of the Supreme Court. The committee promotes the diversification of the Supreme Court and seeks legal and institutional strategies to engender judicial reform. The committee cooperated with the National Assembly Secretariat during the confirmation hearing of the Prosecutor General by requesting information, designing a questionnaire, and monitoring the hearing.
There is an ongoing debate concerning the blurring of jurisdictional lines between prosecutors and police. In order to limit corruption of power from either party, the committee believes that the roles should be clearly divided in a fair and just way. This position was announced following a discussion among its members. Since 2008, the committee has identified the following to be some of the primary barriers to the democratization of Korea’s judicial system: problems with regard to unified legal professionalism, the current operation of the law school system, and disproportional authority of the police, prosecutors and courts. While seeking institutional strategies to realize the reform of the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutors’ Office, the committee tries to reflect MINBYUN’s will and opinion on such reforms.
Public Welfare & Economy Committee
The Public Welfare & Economy Committee was created in September 2005 when members held a series of preparatory meetings to investigate various economic public welfare issues. In its broadest sense, the committee aims to alleviate socio-economic polarization in Korean society. It concerns itself with the outcomes of Korean public welfare policies and practices, which lends itself to inequities being accumulated over time.
The committee primarily focuses on housing, consumer protection, middle class borrowing, and small and medium enterprises. It makes policy recommendations to the South Korean government and participates in law-making processes.
Regarding the problem of middle class debt, the committee held lectures on personal bankruptcy managed by the Democratization Movement Benefit Association, as well as credit recovery programs connected to labor unions. The committee also published aPersonal Bankruptcy Advice pamphlet and has taken action against a court ruling that credit card debt accumulation constituted fraud if the debtor has acknowledged an inability to pay it off.
The committee currently holds monthly meetings consisting of one-hour lectures or readings, followed by discussions. These information sessions have in the past examined middle class loans, existing real estate problems and measures to alleviate societal polarization. The committee is dedicated to advancing these debates as well as identifying new issues as they arise.
The committee is currently seeking to extend solidarity and eagerly accepts suggestions from related civil organizations counterparts.
The Education Committee promotes the right to education, advocates for individual freedom for students, and aims to protect the rights of teachers. The committee rejects political and religious interference, as well as enforcement of nationalism in education. The committee’s long-term goal is to advance the democratization of Korean education, which means establishing pedagogical autonomy and political neutrality of education and promoting professionalism.
Recently, the committee has focused on taking legal action on the Ministry of Education’s order to ‘edit’ modern contemporary Korean history school textbooks, halting the entrance examination for international middle schools, and preventing the introduction of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which would require examinations that are thought to encourage unnecessary competition among students.
The committee urges eradication of corrupt private education and is currently undertaking action on behalf of the amended Private School Law— the constitutionality of which has been challenged by conservative organizations — namely by resisting a petition challenging the revision of the law.
International Solidarity Committee
The International Solidarity Committee has been granted a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The International Solidarity Committee adopts UN human rights monitoring mechanisms to report local human rights violations and enhances the effectiveness of the implementation of International Covenants applying to human rights. Specifically, the committee drafts reports on the human rights conditions in the Republic of Korea and dispatches a delegation to present this research in written and oral statements during the sessions of treaty-based bodies that Korea has joined. Such bodies include the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights(CESCR), the Committee on Civil and Political Rights(CCPR), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination(CERD), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women(CEDAW), the Committee Against Torture(CAT), as well as the regular and special sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the Universal Periodic Report (UPR).
In 2008, candlelight vigils were held in response to the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. These vigils were met with a strong reaction from the government and acts of police brutality resulted in widespread human rights abuses. In the aftermath, the committee cooperated with other human rights organizations in Republic of Korea and sent an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur by using the UN Special Procedures. Also the committee shares a cooperative relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as with local and international organizations. The committee works alongside Burman, Filipino and Rohingyan solidarity movements throughout Asia.