Are human rights always the scapegoat of economic development? : Miryang, a troubled city

human rights the scapegoat of economic development

by Hanna Noh

[1] South Korea, the first country to become the UN assessment contributor from UNAIDS, miracle of the Han River. Those are common accolades commemorating South Korea’s incredible development over the past half-century. After three years of a devastating Korean War (1950-1953), the country was left impoverished and in a dire state. Consequently, basic human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly were often sacrificed in pursuit of industrialization and development. Now, South Korea enjoys its status as the world’s 15th largest GDP (Gross Domestics Products)[2] and is ranked 7th largest merchandise exporter in the world[3]. Nevertheless, what we are witnessing now in Miryang, a small farming village located in the Southeast region of South Korea, resembles the development stage of South Korea seen in the 1970’s, when government prioritised national development over individual rights.

On 10 October 2013, CIVICUS published a press release urging the Korean government to release the 11 detainees who were charged for obstructing official business; the construction of a 765kV Power Transmission Tower intended to send a high amount of electricity from Gori nuclear power plant to Seoul. The situation in Miryang began  deteriorating on 7 October when 11 environmental defenders were arrested and arbitrarily detained for an unknown period in Miryang for attempting to voice their concerns. The People’s Solidarity Movement for Participatory Democracy filed complaints to the United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteur on the 2nd, 3rd and 7th of October, attempting to draw international attention on the situation but to date there has been no response.

Continued police injustice is taking place in this tranquil village, including threats and harassment toward villagers, arbitrary detention, and indiscreet photo-taking and videotaping of protestors without warrants nor identifying the responsible police. In a media announcement sent 7 October, police authorities in Miryang claimed they would try their best to avoid unnecessary physical clashes between civilians and armed forces. However, this in reality was disregarded since many reports contain details of violent repression of the demonstrators. Most protesters are senior citizens in their 70’s and 80’s but overzealous police officials have used excessive force in crushing them while barricades around the protest site cut off necessary medical and food supplies.

There have also been significant distortions in national media coverage of the Miryang protests. Major national broadcasters have favoured the government. For instance, KEPCO, the company responsible for this project, claim that there have been 415 rounds of discussions seeking accordance with the residents but due to unhelpful attitudes, a middle ground has not been reached.

The purpose of the protests were to show dissent against the reopening of construction of 69 transmission towers in 5 villages of Miryang by Korea Electric Power Cooperation (KEPCO). Due to high voltage and noises transmitted from the towers when in operation, the residents of Miryang are threatened with their right to health, safe environment and property. The 69 towers were designed to cut across the middle of the village and lines of mountains, making them highly disruptive to village residents daily lives. Yet, careful scrutiny reveals that compensation for the residents is not adequate, government refused to work with the villagers and civil society before opening construction, and alternatives to the tower construction haven’t received serious consideration.

Setting aside the effectiveness of the transmission towers, it was previously the government’s legal obligation to obtain consent from residents for such construction. Today in Miryang, the government is pushing transmission tower projects, which lack any deliberate consideration for civil society voices and claim compromising human rights is necessary for national development. As a young Korean, I am confused by how the government can force national development plans on its citizens without properly consulting with those whose lives and rights are compromised in the pursuit of development, requiring the villagers to remain silent and surrender their rights for the good of the country.

Nevertheless, I count on the power of a growing civil society and Korean government’s willingness to take international agreements into domestic action. Being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), Korea has been showing active participation, including its commitment during the Universal Periodic Review in 2012.

While sitting at the 24th HRC session on 9th – 27th September 2013 and the 17th UPR review on 21st October – 1st November as an intern of CIVICUS’ Geneva office, I could observe Korean delegation calling on states under review to promote human rights at the national level. Now it is time for the Korean government to speak with its actions, not the words used in the HRC. Remembering the words of Albert Camus, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” I join the call for the Korean government to respect the rights of every citizen. Let us not remain silent about the injustice and suffering of our neighbours.


[1] CHOE, SANG-HUN, “ As Power Line Grows, So Does Fight Between Ancient and Modern Korea”, New York Times, October 29th 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/world/asia/koreans-say-power-line-plan-threatens-tradition.html?hp&_r=1&

[2] World Development Indicators, World Bank, 2012

[3] 2011 Rank in World Trade, World Trade Organization, 2013

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