Jailing protest leaders undermines South Korean democracy

The recent sentencing of two South Korean civil society leaders, indicted for their role in organising and participating in protests demanding an independent investigation into the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster of 2014, is a troubling outcome for the protection of democratic rights in the country. CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is deeply disturbed by the conviction and sentencing of the two leaders.

“The recent convictions of civil society protest leaders are a regressive step that will ultimately harm South Korean democracy,” said Teldah Mawarire, Policy and Research Officer at CIVICUS. “In democratic societies the right to express dissent and petition the government should be respected, not squashed.”

Lae-goon Park and Hye-jin Kim are with the civil society organisation 4.16 Coalition of the Sewol Ferry Disaster, a triumvirate alliance comprised of NGOs, Sewol victims’ families, and concerned South Korean citizens. On 22 January, the Seoul District Court sentenced Lae-goon Park to a three-year jail sentence with four years of probation and 160 hours of community service, while Hye-jin Kim was given a two-year sentence with three years of probation and 120 hours of community service.

The two are currently on probation and their lawyers have indicated that they will appeal the sentences. Among a litany of charges, the two were tried for organising illegal rallies, refusing to be dispersed, and obstructing traffic.

The protests arose from the 16 April 2014 ferry disaster in which 304 people, mostly schoolchildren, died.  News accounts widely reported that the MV Sewol had been illegally modified, was carrying more than the legal capacity of cargo, and lacked proper safety training and procedures. 

Unsatisfied with the pace and level of investigation, the families of victims, civil society, and other citizens called on the government to set up a transparent commission to investigate the disaster and the rescue efforts. Throughout 2014 and 2015, thousands of protestors, including human rights defenders Hye-jin Kim and Lae-goon Park, organised actions such as hunger strikes, protests, written appeals, statements and public petitions, urging the government to set up an independent commission. 

To mark the anniversary of the disaster, widespread protests were held in April and May 2015 leading to violent clashes with the police who used excessive force on demonstrators. This included using water cannons with capsaicin liquid (a chemical irritant) and led to serious injuries to over 100 protestors.

At the time, CIVICUS wrote to the South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressing concern over the judicial harassment and arbitrary detention of demonstrators. 

CIVICUS calls upon global civil society to urge South Korean authorities to (i) end the judicial harassment of Mr Lae-goon Park and Ms Hye-jin Kim, (ii) respect the fundamental rights of protestors including their freedom of assembly and expression and, (iii) to give human rights defenders space to demand transparency through protests. 


After the tragedy, news reports revealed that passengers, particularly the students, obeyed instructions to stay in their cabins even as water flooded in and captain and crew abandoned ship. The tragedy spurred wider political reaction to the disaster, ranging from anger at the lax regulatory environment that contributed to the safety violations, to anger about the rescue operations and subsequent responses to the tragedy.