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NK rights bill remains divisive

Publication Date : 21-01-2013


Proposed legislation on North Korean human rights is again gaining attention ahead of the presidential hand-over and the upcoming National Assembly session.

While US and international bodies have supported similar acts since the early 2000s, the proposed North Korean Human Rights Act in South Korea has been mired in political wrangling since 2005.

Under the proposed act, the government will establish a North Korean human rights foundation, which will support local and overseas nongovernmental organisations working in related fields. The foundation will also be allowed to support projects helping North Koreans residing outside of the Korean Peninsula.

The act also stipulates that a North Korean human rights committee be set up within the Ministry of Unification, and that the unification minister must draw up plans for related activities on a triennial basis.

If legislated, anyone who discovers human rights violations against North Koreans will be able to report the issue to Seoul’s National Human Rights Commission, and file suits with the International Criminal Court regarding cases that meet a set of conditions.

The North Korean Human Rights Act was proposed in 2005 by Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo, who was then a member of the National Assembly for the Grand National Party, the predecessor to the Saenuri Party.

The proposal, however, was automatically scrapped with the end of the National Assembly session, having been sidelined due to strong opposition from the then-ruling Uri Party, which has since evolved into the main opposition Democratic United Party.

At the time, the progressive Uri Party argued that passing the act would aggravate Pyongyang and lead to unnecessary deterioration of inter-Korean relations.

But the conservative party has maintained its drive to pass the act, proposing it again in 2008 with minor modifications.

In 2010, the new proposal was passed by the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee. However, with the Legislation and Judiciary Committee refused to process the act without the ruling and opposition parties’ reaching an agreement.

The issue was again raised in the following year but no progress came as the main opposition party pushed its own version, the so-called “North Korean Public Livelihood Human Rights Act”.

Although the some changes have been made to the North Korean Human Rights Act since its first proposal, high-profile DUP officials have spoken out against it in strong terms as recently as late last year.

Former DUP chairman Lee Hae-chan has referred to the act as “interference with domestic affairs” earning heavy criticism from conservatives.

“(Using law) to interfere in other nations’ domestic affairs is not desirable. It is a diplomatic faux pas to become involved in another country’s political issues,” Lee said in an interview with a local radio station in June.

“It is true that North Korea has human rights issues, but it is an issue the North should deal with by itself.”

The conservatives hit back at Lee’s comments, saying that his stance on the issue was a betrayal of a higher value.

“Human rights are common values that go beyond domestic affairs. The DUP continues in this manner, while many countries around the world are working to establish international guidelines to improve human rights,” Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, who led the proposal, said at the time.

“Under our constitution, North Koreans are residents of South Korea. This is a constitutional duty.”

With an amicable end to the contention between the two main parties appearing increasingly unlikely, Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the Saenuri Party called on the opposition parties to draw up a compromise act that combines elements of two proposed acts.

While Lee’s comments were far from representative of the general consensus among DUP lawmakers, some of whom question the act’s efficacy in improving human rights conditions in North Korea, Pyongyang has acted in ways that support the claims that its legislation will do little for inter-Korean relations.

“(The Saenuri Party) is making a last desperate attempt to pass this unjust law,” Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said on January 14 in response to a Saenuri Party spokesman’s call to process the act.

Saying that the act was aimed at damaging North Korea’s regime, the news agency went on to say that the fundamental aim of the North Korean Human Rights Act was to “consolidate the confrontation of regimes.”


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