Sunday, October 12, 2008

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK)

I still have about four events I have yet to report on in depth from the trip to Seoul, and now that I am in Missoula with my hosts Marsha Katz and Bob Liston, I have a little time to catch up. Lots of ponderosa pines outside, a nice house full of things to look at and wireless access...sounds like a good place to write!

So, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK). The NHRCK was established back in 2001 as the fulfillment of a pledge made by then-President and 2000 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kim Dae-Jung to establish an independent government body dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights. The NHRCK has also been the site of a hunger strike by disability rights activists seeking action on critical issues of transportation. That's right, they took over a room at the NHRCK and basically ate nothing and drank water until the Seoul City Government agreed to work with them on their demands.

At any rate, Bogjoo arranged a meeting with Standing Commissioner Kyong-Sook Choi, who is the first person with a disability on the commission of nine people. As mentioned in a previous post, Bogjoo serves in an advisory capacity to the NHRCK. The following information is based on my conversation with Commissioner Choi, who struck me as a very professional and warm person. My impression was of a person who understands how to work with people, which is unsurprising given her background as an organizer of women with disabilities in the southeast of Korea.

Commissioner Choi has been involved in disability rights work for about 10 years. In the 1990s, there was not a lot of organized activity by women with disabilities, with only some activity in Seoul for the most part. In Busan, where the Commissioner is from, she worked to unite different women with disabilities groups. The result, in 1998, was the formation of the Disabled Women's Union (DWU). This was the first effort of its kind outside of Seoul.

Simultaneously in the early 1990s, the issue of sexual violence came into prominence across the country. In 2001, the first center for sexual violence against women with disabilities opened, and in 2002, the first shelter for women with disabilities also opened. The DWU grew from 17 members in 1998 to 500 people in 2007. Until her appointment to NHRCK, Commissioner Choi served as director of the DWU.

Commissioner Choi explained that the people involved in the DWU had many needs and desires, including education, leadership training and sports. Many women who received initial training then left and successfully entered national and international competitions. After 2000, there was also a greater emphasis on empowering women with disabilities through independent living and job training.

In 2005, my President and CEO at Access Living, Marca Bristo, visited Seoul for a conference and Commissioner Choi was able to speak with her. This inspired me to ask her where she had first learned about independent living, since Marca herself learned about independent living through a visit to Berkeley in the 1970s, where she met Ed Roberts and the folks at the Berkeley CIL.

The Commissioner's response was that she had first learned about independent living through books. She grew up in a small town, and then worked in Busan. She had never been in Seoul and always wondered why everything seemed to happen in Seoul. She did, however, receive disability newsletters from Seoul which described independent living, and, she says, "They spoke to my heart."

Around 2000, not a lot of people were talking about independent living, except in Seoul. So the Commissioner went to a conference on independent living and brought those concepts back to Busan.

At this point we re-directed the conversation back to the work of the NHRCK.

The NHRCK employs over 200 people dedicated to receiving and investigating complaints of human rights abuse, and formulating recommendations to improve human rights conditions in South Korea. It monitors systems and laws within South Korea and is also dedicated to changing traditions and conventions so as to protect human rights. Its closest equivalent in the US is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

There are 11 commissioners, of which at least four must be women. Four are appointed by the President (who, by the way, lives in the Blue House! the equivalent of the White House); four are appointed by the Korean Parliament; three are appointed bythe Supreme Court.

The NHRCK does not have the capacity to enforce human rights law, but it does serve as the last resort for people who have tried the courts, the police and city hall. 90% of its recommendations are accepted. The NHRCK organizes surveys to evualate the state of human rights in the country, and also strives to educate people against human rights abuse.

This past April, the human rights scene for people with disabilities in Korea changed because of the passage of the Anti-Disability Discrimination Act. With this legislation, the NHRCK has surer ground for making human rights recommendations for people with disabilities. Some of the more pressing disability work the NHRCK has engaged in recently has dealt with the rising number of people with disabilities in prison, on which the NHRCK is now making recommendations.

Also, because the disability community is currently engaged in demonstrations to enforce mechanisms for personal assistants, the NHRCK is making recommendations for that issue as well.

I asked the Commissioner if the NHRCK has recently done work to protect Deaf rights, and she said they tend to have few Deaf cases. A recent one involved a Deaf woman grad student who was not provided with interpreters in her classes at her university. The Commissioner did express interest in further work on issues affecting those most isolated in Korean society---Deaf people, blind people and women. She also noted the concern of housing and its relationship to the problem of institutionalization (i.e., people cannot leave institutions because there is extremely little affordable, accessible---not to mention integrated---housing).

As a final point, I did also ask what the Commissioner had felt about organizing women with disabilities. She thought for a minute and responded that it was both difficult and very easy. Women wanted to attend meetings, but the big problem was when women tried to go from home to the meetings. Families did not want them to go, and did not think positively of the meetings' purpose. This was particularly true for women with more severe disabilities ten years ago. So, the Commissioner would volunteer to help drive the women back and forth and usually got home long after the meetings ended. The problem of transit for women with disabilities is, as the US community, also nothing new here----it is the single largest barrier preventing us from uniting together in one place, in person.

To learn more about the work of the NHRCK in English, please go to They recently received their 30,000th human rights complaint. This reminds me to spew forth some demographics: there are just over 48,000,000 South Koreans, the country is the size of Indiana and there are 31,000 American servicepeople stationed there. Seoul alone has 10.3 million residents alone. So I think the number of complaints is decent, given that it seems to me so easy to be overlooked in the teeming mass of humans in such a small country. Oh, and as another point of interest, the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, is from South Korea.

In my opinion, I counted myself very lucky to have had Bogjoo help to set up this meeting (apparently, according to Sunghee, "everyone loves Bogjoo"). What I took away from the meeting was a sense of how organized advocacy worked in Korea, as opposed to the advocacy practiced by the NSADD and the grassroots work of Nodl and Women with Disabilities Empathy. I also gained a sense of the Commissioner's role in all of this, on a personal level and within the context of her environment. I was very pleased to be able to speak with someone on women with disabilities work outside of Seoul as well. It makes me wonder, in a somewhat beginner-ish way, about the protection of human rights within American borders and whether we truly have devised the best mechanisms to protect and empower all people. I am not a lawyer and I am not an academic. I am an organizer and a writer----and so, I ask a lot of questions, and the Commissioner was very gracious in answering what I asked.

As a footnote on this, after the interview, Bogjoo and Sunghee took Bridget and I down to see a display of human rights photos and a human rights mural made by children on lower floors. This is where I saw my first photo of the Patriot Choi Ok Ran (see And here are some photos from the mural:

This one is a close-up shot showing a child in a wheelchair being pushing by a walking friend...

Mural close-up shot showing two friends, one walking and pushing the other in a wheelchair, made by children

This one is a close-up shot of different drawings of people with sayings in Korean...

Clse-up shot of mural showing many differnet people, drawn by children

And thsi is a shot of the overall mural, which looks like looping circles or waves, filled with drawings of people:

Overall mural shot of looping waves of people

And here is another human rights photo that struck me----it is a photo of mothers at a demonstration against the military. All Korean young men must go into the military when they are of age. The sons of these mothers were killed, so here they are in mourning and demonstrating against the Korean government's callousness:

Mourning mothers in Korea

I think that if one understands that the military is a rite of passage for all young men in Korea, then one also may have a clue as to the militant feel of the disability rights movement, especially among young men with disabilities. It seems to me that there is a similar feeling of a defense of one's people and a commitment to discipline....only the crips go farther because they have lost so much already and have, really, so very little to lose. I am glad that the NHRCK functions as an ally in this fight.


speshy said...

Hi Amber,

My name is Katrina and I'm a Deaf person located in Sydney, Australia. :) I heard from MDAA about your arrival, and have read your introduction email and it all sounds like a massive journey! :) Just wanted to say hello and leave you my email address in case you would like a point of contact or just to meet some people. I'm not only active in the local Deaf community but also am a Community Worker at the Deaf Society of NSW.... (if you would like to drop me a line!)

speshy said...

Oh yeah, I'm also not too shabby at ASL. :) I understand more than I can sign but I can communicate in ASL. :)

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