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(News Focus) N. Korean human rights law approved after 11 years of partisan bickering

All News 23:58 March 02, 2016

By Kang Jin-kyu

SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) -- The passage of the North Korean human rights act on Wednesday put an end to some 11 years of partisan wrangling over the contents of the bill and its impact on inter-Korean relations.

The approved law, first submitted in August 2005, calls for government-led efforts to investigate and fix human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime.

The bill mandates the government to set up an archive on North Korean human rights under the Ministry of Unification that can be used as reference material to keep tabs on abuses.

The ruling and opposition parties initially clashed over what ministry should oversee the archive's management. The Saenuri Party demanded the Justice Ministry take control of the archive while the opposition Minjoo Party contended it should be under the Unification Ministry. The two parties reached the middle ground by consenting to transfer archive records every three months to the Justice Ministry.

Under the Article 5 of the law, a special-purpose committee will be formed under the Unification Ministry to provide the government with policy assistance so as to improve North Korea's human right conditions.

Article 2 of the law stipulates while South Korea will work to protect and improve human rights conditions across the border, it will also strive for the development of inter-Korean ties and strive for a peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula.

The law also calls on a unification minister to compile a master plan on North Korean human rights every three years in consultation with related government agencies and report its findings to the National Assembly.

The law prioritizes North Korean children and pregnant women as being the main recipients of government humanitarian aid and mandates that delivery of such support should be monitored for transparency in accordance with international standards.

The requirement for the transparent transfer of aids reflects criticisms in South Korea that past government food assistance ended up in the hands of the North Korean military and the ruling elites instead of helping ordinary people.

The government is also mandated to set up the North Korean human rights foundation to explore the extent of human rights violations in the North and propose policies that could pressure the North to change its behavior.

"While its passage is long overdue, the country can now defect international criticism for not approving a North Korean human rights law," said Kim Moon-soo, who first submitted the law 11 years ago. "People inside the North will know about the law's enactment and it will put considerable pressure on the political elite in Pyongyang."

Kim Seong-min, head of Free North Korea Radio, based in Seoul, said it took too long for the bill to be passed, especially in light of the suffering endured by North Koreans all these years. The defector-turned-activist, who came to the South in 1999, voiced hope that the new law would give civic groups in the South championing North Korean human rights "big momentum" to speed their work and help get outside information into the North.

While being hailed by supporters as an important step to improve dire human rights conditions in the reclusive state, critics of the law argue the passage will only worsen inter-Korean relations by touching on a subject that Pyongyang taboos.

Prof. Lim Eul-chul of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University told Yonhap News Agency that the bill will have "little to no impact" on inter-Korean relations as it had already hit rock-bottom.

The Park Geung-hye government pulled South Korean businessmen from the joint venture park in the border city of Kaesong last month in response to the North's fourth nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier this year. This move resulted in the closure of the last remaining vestige of the inter-Korean cooperation.

Others like Park Sang-hak, head of a leading civic group that flies anti-North leaflets across the border, criticized the bill for having a clause that calls for improvement in inter-Korea relations.

"I don't see why the bill encourages dialogue with an evil-natured regime," said the activist.

Park also expressed his disappointment in the ruling Saenuri Party for having failed to enact the law sooner, pointing out that Seoul was way behind the United States which enacted the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004.

On the matter of having an archive on North Korean human rights violations, Prof. Jhe Seong-ho of law at ChungAng University said during a discussion session Wednesday that the management of the archive should belong to the Justice Ministry so as to have binding authority to punish North Koreans responsible for human rights abuses in the future.

"In principle, the Unification Ministry is responsible for inter-Korean dialogue and projects, but in the long run, the management of the archive and the North Korean human rights foundation should be integrated and run under the Justice Ministry."

Pyongyang has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The communist regime does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps tight control over outside information.

In December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution for the second consecutive year that calls for referring the North to the International Criminal Court for human rights violations.

The North has flatly denied accusations of its alleged rights abuses, describing them as a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime. The communist country also claims it has the world's most outstanding human rights conditions.


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