Parliament in gridlock for 7 years amid partisan strife, ideological rift
After seven years sidelined by partisan squabbling and ideological split, a campaign to enact legislation aimed at improving human rights in North Korea is gaining fresh momentum.
Politicians, activists and defectors are ramping up efforts at a breakthrough in the wake of the alleged torture of Kim Young-hwan, a prominent anti-North Korea crusader, during his recent detention in China.
The international community is also lending impetus by piling pressure over the freedom of political prisoners in the communist country and the repatriation of defectors by China, Pyongyang’s most important patron. Washington last month extended its own version of a North Korean rights act.
“The National Assembly is the state organ that has contributed the least to the issue,” said Hong Seong-phil, a professor at Yonsei University’s school of law in Seoul.
“It is disappointing that lawmakers left it stalling on the floor due to diplomatic, political and partisan reasons at a time when they’re supposed to lead the protection of the (North Korean) people’s fundamental human rights.”
Attendees view artist renderings of a prison camp in North Korea at a seminar at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in central Seoul in April. (Rob York/ The Korea Herald)
On Monday, some 30 civic groups declared September as “North Korean Human Rights Month” to revitalize their crusade and urge, once again, a swift passage of the long-pending bill. The National Assembly, the United Nations General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council are all opening sessions this month.
The civic organizations, including the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, delivered a written request to Speaker Kang Chang-hee for his intercession for a bipartisan body to host debates and eventually put a law in place.
The bill has been a political football since its introduction in 2005.
It never passed a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and unification as progressives raise worries that it could rile Pyongyang and strain cross-border relations.
Despite increasingly grave living conditions in the impoverished state, the issue has also often been put on the back burner with parties preoccupied with a spate of other contentious bills and elections.
“South Korea is as dark as pitch only when it comes to North Korea human rights,” said Kim Moon-su, governor of Gyeonggi Province who co-authored the first bill as a member of the ruling Saenuri Party, during the Monday ceremony at the National Assembly Memorial Hall in Seoul.
After being resubmitted in 2008, the bill cleared the first stage but then again died on the floor early this year following the closure of the previous Assembly.
In June, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of Saenuri re-proposed the bill, which calls on the South Korean government to conduct a consistent investigation into the North’s human rights situation and make efforts for improvement at home and abroad. If passed, the Unification Ministry will be required to outline roadmaps every three years, run a fact-finding group, and submit the results to the parliament.
“The government considers separated families, defectors, abductees and war prisoners to be a question of human rights that was derived from the division of two Koreas,” Vice Unification Minister Kim Chun-sig said Monday.
“The cooperation between the government, civic groups and the international community is highly critical to solve those problems, which is why we’d like to boost communication with non-governmental organizations.”
Cho Myung-chul, the defector-turned-lawmaker of the Saenuri Party, is planning a separate piece of legislation designed to enable Koreans to report any breach of human rights by North Korean authorities to the National Human Rights Commission. It also calls on the agency to build an archive of relevant cases and bring severe ones to the International Court of Justice.
Rep. Rhee In-je, chairman of the far-right Advancement and Unification Party, also introduced a bill late last month focusing on creating an advisory council for North Korea human rights.
“Laying the legal groundwork is an urgent mission to systemically sponsor the movement,” he said.
According to Amnesty International, up to 200,000 people are locked in six prison camps across the North. The bulk of the prisoners were incarcerated not for dissent but for political misdemeanors such as singing South Korean songs or joining a reading club, watchdogs say.
More than 23,500 defectors live in the South. Many of them have reported a wide range of abuses by the coercive regime including torture and public executions.
Pyongyang has rebuffed such accusations, which it sees as an attempt to topple its government.
In the U.S. State Department’s April report on human rights in 199 countries, North Korea was rated as “extremely poor” and remained at the bottom of the list, alongside China, Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus.
A bone of contention remains, however, with partisan and ideological strife showing no signs of abating at home.
Lee Hae-chan, a former prime minister and chairperson of the main opposition Democratic United Party, precipitated another clash in June by branding Yoon’s bill a “diplomatic faux pas.”
“It is not desirable to interfere in domestic affairs of other countries. It is true that North Korea has human rights problems, but it is a task for North Korea itself, not for foreign intervention,” he said.
Other DUP big shots, including floor leader Park Jie-won and supreme council member Chung Se-kyun, have also expressed skepticism about the efficacy of the proposed law.
“The bill is again going to take some beating given the DUP’s ongoing stiff opposition,” said Yoon Pyung-joong, a political philosophy professor at Hanshin University in Gyeonggi Province.
“Saenuri can push for a single-handed passage but would not likely do so, knowing that a united motion would be a lot more appealing.”
Roberta Cohen, a leading North Korean rights and refugee specialist and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington, stressed that Pyongyang has itself ratified four U.N. treaties -- on civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; women’s rights; and on children’s rights.
“Like all other countries, it must be held accountable internationally to comply with the provisions of those treaties. South Korean lawmakers risk making North Korea into a human rights exception by insisting on treating them differently from all other states,” she told The Korea Herald via email.
“Unfortunately they seem to find it politically easier to appease North Korea. But one day when all the information about North Korea comes out, they will feel ashamed that they did not stand with the North Korean people.”
To break the stalemate, Hong suggested the establishment of a higher-level governmental body to comprehensively deal with the issue before enacting a law, for instance a fact-finding group for former conscripted laborers and sex slaves to Japan under the Prime Minister’s Office.
“It is important to unite opinions within the administration in light of a long-running jurisdiction dispute between the unification ministry, justice ministry and the human rights commission,” the professor said.
While ruling and opposition camps bicker over the bill, other countries have already taken action, calling it an international obligation to defend “universal values.”
The recently renewed U.S. act ensures constant backing for refugee protection, humanitarian aid and democracy promotion. It added a new clause that urges China to stop forcibly deporting North Korean defectors.
In addition, the European Union has passed North Korea human rights resolutions for seven straight years since 2005. Japan also enacted similar laws in 2004 and 2006.
Tension flared up in recent months surrounding the trilateral dynamic between the two Koreas and China after Kim Young-hwan accused Chinese investigators of systematic abuse during his near four-month confinement.
The high-flying activist said he was tortured with electricity, beaten, deprived of sleep and forced into 13 hours of daily labor. He was freed and deported on July 20, alongside three colleagues.
Beijing insists on having found no evidence, dismissing Seoul’s repeated requests for a reinvestigation.
The series of foreign legislation, coupled with Kim’s torture allegations, underpins Beijing’s increasing stake in North Korean human rights, Hong of Yonsei said.
“In the past, human rights in North Korea has been deemed the country’s own problem. But it is shown that China and its support for the North have become a major hurdle to solving defector and internal rights issues,” he told The Korea Herald.
“The U.S. Congress newly enshrined a code urging China to end its repatriation of North Korean refugees, while Kim clearly shone a light on China’s own rights issues. This means that (South Korean lawmakers) now cannot disregard China’s role when they handle the bill.”
Cohen at Brookings said there is a “strong relationship” between the absence of human rights in North Korea and the flight of its people to China.
Beijing has been taking flak for sending back defectors under a decades-old pact with Pyongyang, despite the torture, detention, forced labor or public executions in store at home.
“China’s ongoing forced repatriation of North Koreans should be included in any discussion of North Korean human rights,” she said.
“China however when pressured has allowed North Korean defectors who flee to foreign embassies in Beijing to leave for South Korea. That pressure should be maintained in an effort to get them to stop all forced returns.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)