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NK human rights law comes into force

A new law on North Korea’s human rights came into force Sunday, fueling momentum for decade-old efforts to ease the plight of the people and boost pressure on the reclusive regime.

Under the plan, a foundation is expected to be set up in Seoul as early as this week with the mission to survey the communist state’s living conditions and provide policy advice.

The Unification Ministry is gearing up to launch a records center later this month. It will document cases of Pyongyang’s rights violations and information regarding separated families, abductees and prisoners of war. The director-general-level organization is supposed to deliver the results of its works to an archive to be installed under the Justice Ministry every three months.

The ministry also plans to create a new bureau that will oversee North Korean rights-related tasks while taking over other existing divisions responsible for the separated families issues, defector resettlement support and humanitarian assistance.

“By now, there is sufficient consensus formed in the international community that the quality of lives of North Koreans has to be improved, and the overall human rights situation there has to be improved,” ministry spokesperson Jeong Joon-hee said Friday, referring to similar laws enacted in countries such as the US and Japan.

“So it’s time for the North, too, to face up to the reality and strive to advance the rights of its people, instead of decrying and disparaging the South’s efforts.” 

The image taken on Aug. 29 from Paju, Gyeonggi Province, shows towns near the inter-Korean border where the South and North Korean flags flap respectively. (Yonhap)
The image taken on Aug. 29 from Paju, Gyeonggi Province, shows towns near the inter-Korean border where the South and North Korean flags flap respectively. (Yonhap)

In Seoul, the legislative campaign was initiated in 2005 by then Saenuri Party lawmaker and former Gyeonggi Province Gov. Kim Moon-su, one year after the US put in place its own act.

But the issue had since been a source of partisan bickering until it gathered international traction in recent years which culminated in a watershed February 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry. Then last March, a more comprehensive bill passed the National Assembly.

The landmark act reflects South Korea’s approach to separately deal with the Kim Jong-un regime and its oppressed, isolated rank-and-file citizens. In her Liberation Day address on Aug. 15, President Park Geun-hye called for the North’s “officials and ordinary people” to join endeavors for reunification.

With global support being key to changes, the law called for the Foreign Ministry to appoint an ambassador for North Korean human rights. The Unification Ministry will also establish a policy advisory committee.

By keeping track of cases of political persecution and coercion, Seoul expects to secure grounds to hold Kim and other perpetrators accountable someday, while ratcheting up pressure on the regime in the short term.

The US, for instance, placed the young ruler and other 14 executives and eight entities on its sanctions blacklist over human rights abuses for the first time last July. South Korea is exploring taking a similar “naming-and-shaming” step, officials said. 

“The regime’s violations of its people’s basic rights to freedom and life constitute a grave crime, and it’s an issue that should be handled not only within the domestic justice system after unification, but also from an international criminal law’s aspect from now on,” Kim Han-kyun, a researcher at the Korean Institute of Criminology, said in his recent report.

“In particular, managing the archive and inter-Korean human rights dialogue would help establish the foundation for a post-unification criminal system and policies.”

Pyongyang has been ferociously resisting the drive as a plot to topple its system, arguing that such human rights issues do not and cannot exist there.

“(The legislation) is an act that is as ridiculous, futile and blind as trying to break a rock with an egg,” the North’s Measure Council for Human Rights in South Korea said Thursday through state media, threatening the Park administration with “destruction.”

The official Korean Central News Agency also accused the president and her aides of inciting confrontation Friday, saying they deserved “being trampled.”

Sources of contention linger, however, with the act defining applicable targets as “persons who have their domicile, lineal ascendants and descendants, spouse, workplace and other bases of living north of the Military Demarcation Line.” This could complicate support for North Koreans in a third country seeking to enter the South.

The text also failed to carry concrete steps or a detailed agenda to bring about a inter-Korean human rights dialogue.

Any talks appear far-fetched at this point, given Seoul’s “no-dialogue” principles -- unless the North makes progress in denuclearization -- as well as Pyongyang’s unbridled nuclear and missile provocations and refusal to accept the rights problems.

“With regard to defectors in a third country, we will need to make a prudent decision taking comprehensively into account diplomatic relations and other issues involved,” a senior Unification Ministry official told reporters last week, adding details of future programs are to be hammered out.

By Shin Hyon-hee (