By Yi Whan-woo
The United Nations has opened an investigation into possible violations of freedom of speech in Korea.
Maina Kiai, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, is spearheading the investigation amid concerns that the Park Geun-hye administration is backtracking on democratic freedoms and suppressing rallies against the government.
Kiai is visiting Korea from Wednesday, Jan. 21, to Jan. 29.
He met Second Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul at the foreign ministry in downtown Seoul, Thursday.
Kiai also met a range of interest groups on human rights, labor rights, disabled people, sexual minorities and other issues.
The U.N. official is also scheduled to meet officials from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Employment and Labor, National Police Agency and National Human Rights Commission.
Kiai will then hold a press conference on Jan. 29 to unveil the results of the investigation.
It is speculated that he will submit an evaluation report on Korea to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by June.
"We hope the U.N. gets a correct, objective and balanced view on Korea through Kiai's findings," foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said.
Kiai's trip comes after a request was made by a group of civic organizations to carry out a U.N. investigation. They filed a petition to the U.N. that "the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association" in line with UNHRC regulations has worsened to a serious level in Korea in recent years.
The number of citizens who were taken into custody after joining a rally reached 19 during the January-June period in 2014, up from six in 2013 alone, according to People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a progressive-minded association in Seoul.
It also said a total of 2,323 citizens from January to June 2014 faced criminal charges for using violence during protests and damaging public property, while 1,389 people faced the same charges in 2013.
The Park administration faced harsh criticism from the international media when police detained more than 50 protesters following an anti-government protest in downtown Seoul on Nov. 14, 2015.
A 69-year-old farmer also remained unconscious at a hospital after he fell and injured his head as police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse about 70,000 people allied with labor, civic and farmers' groups.
The protesters took to the streets to rally against Park and her business-friendly labor policies and decision to use state-authored history textbooks.
Coalition for Law Enforcement Watch, a civic group, said that "The police are imposing excessive penalties on protesters to prevent them from holding demonstrations regardless of reasons."
"The authorities are also using tear gas and other devices that are supposed to be used only for riot control. There should be a mechanism to ensure people's rights to protest peacefully."