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(3rd LD) S. Korean parliament passes N. Korean human rights bill

All Headlines 00:42 March 03, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS more information in 5-6, 8 paras; UPDATES with the endorsement of electoral map in last 6 paras))

SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's parliament endorsed a long-stalled bill aimed at improving North Korea's dismal human rights situation.

The bill, which passed through the National Assembly's plenary session late Wednesday, received the support of 212 lawmakers with none opposing it. There were, however, 24 parliamentarians who opted not to vote altogether.

Since the first draft was filed with the National Assembly in 2005, no major progress has been made. Similar bills were scrapped during previous parliaments, as liberal lawmakers have shied away from the issue of the North's human rights out of concern that it could strain inter-Korean relations.

Among other things, the bill calls for a concerted effort to improve the North's human rights situation, such as setting up a foundation tasked with collecting information about the North's human rights situation and maintaining relevant archives.

The bill also supports defector organizations in the South that float anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border in plastic balloons, a campaign that is strongly opposed by Pyongyang.

Just before the parliamentary session, the North denounced the South, calling its move to pass the bill an ugly farce aimed at disgracing the North.

Pyongyang is accused of committing various serious human rights abuses, ranging from holding hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in concentration camps to torture and public executions. The country, however, flatly denies the accusations as a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.

The U.S. and Japan, meanwhile, adopted legislation on North Korea's human rights situation in 2003 and 2006, respectively.

Earlier on Wednesday, parliament also passed a long-stalled anti-terrorism bill after opposition lawmakers temporarily walked out of the National Assembly chamber in protest.

The government-backed bill, which bypassed the normal process and was taken to the floor by the assembly speaker, passed by 156-1 with zero abstentions.

The ruling Saenuri Party controls 157 seats in the 293-member National Assembly, compared to 107 seats held by the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea.

Since the first draft bill was filed with the National Assembly in November 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, no headway was made until now.

The bill was scrapped every time during previous parliaments due to concern over breaches of privacy such as allowing the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea's top spy agency, to collect personal data on anyone suspected of posing a threat to national security.

Under the passed bill, an anti-terrorism center will be set up under the Prime Minister's Office, but the NIS will have the power to gather the relevant information on possible terrorists.

Also, those convicted of organizing terrorist groups will face the maximum penalty of a death sentence and those helping the groups will be sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to the bill.

The bill stipulates that financial authorities are authorized to halt and restrict the financial transactions of anyone suspected to have financed terrorist activities both at home and abroad.

The bill has recently gained new momentum following North Korea's nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.

President Park Geun-hye repeatedly expressed concerns on possible terror attacks, urging bipartisan cooperation for the endorsement of the bill meant to better protect the lives of South Koreans.

The Seoul government welcomed the passage, saying that it will beef up cooperation with the international community to better cope with terrorist threats.

Besides these bills, lawmakers on Wednesday, passed a bipartisan deal that outlines the redrawing of electoral districts for the upcoming general elections.

After wrangling over the issue of constituencies for months, the rival parties reached the deal on remapping electoral districts for the April 13 poll last month.

Under the revision, Seoul has one more parliamentary seat and the increasingly populous Gyeonggi Province has eight more slots compared to the previous election four years ago. Incheon and two other regional cities each have one additional seat. Five seats were withdrawn from the Gangwon, Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces.

The total number of parliamentary seats will remain unchanged at 300 after the rival parties agreed to replace five proportional representation seats with elected ones.

The previous electoral map became invalid at the end of 2015 after the Constitutional Court said the former map does not properly represent the distribution of local populations.

The delay in redrawing the electoral map has already dealt a blow to the parties' candidate registry and election campaigns.

khj@yna.co.kr
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