Welcome gesture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 1999, 12:00am

Reports that South Korea may be planning the release of 242 prisoners of conscience, including 17 aged over 70, will go a long way in enhancing the country's international reputation.

Since his election to office in 1997, President Kim Dae-jung has already granted two widespread amnesties to political prisoners, thus signalling the possible advent of a more liberal era for the country.

One of the elderly prisoners, Woo Yong-gak, is 69 and has spent almost 41 years in jail. Pardoning these old men now holds little risk for the Government, while at the same time sending a welcome message to the global community.

But, even if the releases do take place, they will only partly silence human rights activists. They say that the country's jails would still contain some 120 political prisoners, many jailed for contravening the extremely harsh National Security Law.

Furthermore, human rights groups claim, many of these prisoners are believed to have been jailed unfairly. They also point out that the oath of loyalty to observe the country's laws that prisoners are forced to sign before being freed, is little different from the earlier requirement to repudiate communism because it means endorsing a law which outlaws communism.

But despite these provisos, freeing such a large number of prisoners of conscience can only be welcomed as a bold leap in the right direction.