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[News Focus] N.K. human rights bill in limbo for decade

Ruling party lawmakers are putting last-ditch efforts on legislating a long-held bill to address North Korean human rights issues amid partisan differences over policies toward the reclusive regime.

The Saenuri Party and the government said last week that they would consider fast-tracking the North Korean human rights bill in June to expedite the legislation unless they reach an agreement by the end of this month with the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

“It is a shame that the National Assembly has still not passed the bill,” said Rep. Na Kyung-won, chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and unification. “If we fail to pass the bill again, we would be abandoning our historical duty.”

The first draft of the North Korean human rights bill was introduced in 2005. Rep. Kim Moon-soo of the Grand National Party, predecessor to the Saenuri Party, and fellow legislators submitted the bill to the Assembly’s committee on foreign affairs and unification, but the committee failed to pass the bill in time as ruling and opposition lawmakers locked horns over the content.

The bill was resubmitted in 2008 and passed the committee. But it made no headway at the plenary session as opposition parties blocked the passage, saying it would provoke North Korea and damage already strained inter-Korean ties.

The bill was put back into the spotlight last year when the United Nations adopted a landmark resolution against Pyongyang, calling for a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court for human rights violations.

Boosted by the U.N. resolution, Rep. Kim Young-woo of the Saenuri Party and fellow lawmakers repackaged previous legislation and proposed a comprehensive version of the North Korean human rights bill last November.

The updated bill calls for the government to appoint a special ambassador for North Korea’s human rights; to establish a comprehensive archive to investigate and collect human rights abuse cases; and to offer support for activities by human rights groups.

The progressive bloc, however, criticized the conservatives’ version as not comprehensive enough. The liberals pointed out that the bill lacks direct support for North Korean people such as food and medical aid, while the conservatives place importance on transparency over assistance.

The opposition also claimed the bill could cause unexpected clashes with the North. They believe it would encourage anti-North groups to “further provoke” Pyongyang, such as by sending leaflets to the North. In October last year, North Korea responded by shooting down the balloons carrying the leaflets.

The opposition proposed their own version of the North Korean human rights bill earlier this year. It highlighted improving the livelihood of North Koreans by providing direct humanitarian support. It also planned to build a dedicated agency to oversee the distribution of assistance.

As political bickering continued over the bill, other countries have come forward by addressing the North’s human rights abuses.

The U.S. passed the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2006 and extended it until 2017. It aims to help North Korean refugees by providing humanitarian and legal assistance to them and grants to organizations to promote human rights in North Korea.

Japan also enacted a similar act in 2004. It is designed to resolve the abduction of Japanese nationals to the North while bringing the public and international community’s attention to North Korea’s human rights conditions.

Unlike the bills by the U.S. and Japan, experts believe that Seoul’s version will take on a more profound and significant meaning. They pointed out that South Korea has a higher stake with the inter-Korean relationship.

“As for the South Korean government, the bill will serve a different purpose from the U.S. and Japan,” said Hong Seong-phil, a law professor at Yonsei University. “The bill will help the Korean government formulate its reunification policy, so that it can prepare for the two Koreas’ reunification.”

Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies, suggested the government take a cautious approach in legislating the bill.

“Even if the bill were to be passed, the (Korean) government should apply it carefully as to not provoke the North. Until then, the government should serve as a middleman between the North and regional powers such as the U.S. and Japan,” Yang said.

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)
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