Pill Kyu Hwang

Role: Human Rights Lawyer, Gonggam Human Rights Law Foundation
Active in Country: Republic of South Korea
DTP Program: Human Rights Advocacy and Business: A Capacity Building Program for Community Advocates - Indonesia 2007

I work with this organization called Gonggam Human Rights Law Foundation. It’s a non-profit, full-time human rights lawyers’ organization that I have been with for seventeen years. We cover several different areas of human rights. For me, my main areas of practice are migrants and refugees; business and human rights; UN advocacy; disaster and human rights; children’s issues and North Korean issues. Until last year I also used to teach at law school, an international human rights clinic. I am also a member of a human rights network taking action on the Covid-19 situation. We have filed a number of complaints to the National Human Rights Commission concerning discrimination against the homeless, persons with disabilities or migrants in relation to Covid tests or vaccines.

Recently, I have been especially focused on the area of disasters and human rights, including Covid-19 and also other some big social disasters in Korea. I am a member of a special commission on social disasters - a government organisation - and we are investigating two disasters which killed hundreds or thousands of people in South Korea.

One case is the Sewol disaster, the sinking of a ferry in 2014 that killed more than 300 people, 250 of them high school students. The sinking was broadcast by the media and it was a real shock to the nation. There are some doubts about the causes of the sinking and the government response in the wake of the incident was not adequate or appropriate, so we formed this special commission to investigate the causes and to prevent reoccurrence of this type of disaster.

The other disaster is a unique situation in Korea. We have these humidifier disinfectants and there were advertisements saying that they were necessary products to purify humidifiers, particularly for people with children. But it turned out that there was this toxic element within the disinfectants. Many people died. It's been more than ten years since that happened, but there are still thousands of people suffering from lung diseases and over a thousand dead. So we are doing investigation on that case as well.

I have very different versions every time someone asks me how I became interested in human rights! It started from the very beginning, as a child. I think there was some kind of religious background to it - we have to love others, things like that - then I began to understand that there were structural issues at play.

I also had an important experience abroad when I was in middle school. I went to Hong Kong, and there were people from around the world. I learned how to get rid of my prejudices. For example, at that time in the 1980s, there was no perception of LGBTI in South Korea at all. But in Hong Kong I encountered a teacher who was a gay and I really liked him as a teacher and that changed my perceptions. It was a free environment, free air compared to Korea where there was a military coup in 1980.

I had this kind of direct experience and religious background and before preparing my final exam in law school I decided that I was going to be a full-time human rights lawyer. At that time, there wasn't a full-time human rights lawyer’s practice in Korea. I was planning to establish one but before graduating, Gonggam was established, so I simply joined this organisation.

I did the DTP training in Jakarta in 2007. It was on business and human rights and we did exercises on OECD National Contact Point (NCP) complaints. We looked at a case study of a Korean company in the Philippines. After the training, back home we actually filed a case on this to the Korean NCP, so it was really helpful! I am still in touch with several colleagues from the training; we meet at conferences or on joint projects.

In my time working as a human rights lawyer, there have been changes in South Korea. For example, after campaigning for seven years we succeeded in getting a separate Refugee Act enacted, the only one in Asia. There are also positive changes within law in relation to migrant workers or children. However, compared to that, the perception of the general public in Korea has deterioriated. There is strong momentum of growing xenophobia and racism. Some laws have changed for the better but I feel that the public perception has gone backwards. We are facing a great challenge in that aspect.

Similarly, I don't think that Korean companies are very proactive about addressing human rights issues in their operations and supply chains. We have been dealing with a number of cases like Posco or LG or Samsung. They have some policies and they release some kind of sustainability reports but they are not that seriously into business and human rights principles or perceptions. So when something happens, they try to get away from any responsibility. I haven't encountered a Korean company that, when there was a problem, took any real responsibility to actually deal with the issue.

Gonggam is the first organisation of its kind in Korea, a full-time human rights lawyers' group, self-sustaining. We have more than 2,000 individual donors donating 10 or 20 or more dollars a month, that is 70 to 80% of our budget, the rest comes from law firms and other foundations. We showed society that this kind of organisation is possible. Now there are a number of other non-profit human rights law firms and more than 150 full-time human rights lawyers. I think that is one of our biggest achievements.


Profile written in December 2021