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Seoul still dodging the North human rights issue

Sept 16,2014
The issue of North Korea’s abysmal human rights record is expected to be prominent at the upcoming 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which President Park Geun-hye will attend.

But as the international community tries to come down on Pyongyang for suppressing the rights of its people, South Korea’s efforts are being criticized for being almost nonexistent.

On the recommendation of a United Nations agency earlier this year, South Korea announced it would open a field office in Seoul to probe information on North Korean human rights.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government initially agreed to provide office space in its Global Center in Jongno District, central Seoul, but ended up abruptly backpedaling on the offer.

The Seoul city government recently revealed it would be difficult to offer that space after all, according to a government source, who cited the reasons “protests and other concerns.”

In May, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) selected South Korea as the location to establish a new field office to investigate North Korean human rights abuses, beating out other potential host countries such as Japan and Thailand.

This decision followed the UN Commission of Inquiry concluding a yearlong investigation into human rights abuses in North Korea in February. In a report published in March, it concluded that senior members of North Korea’s military regime, including leader Kim Jong-un, had committed or overseen a broad range of crimes against humanity and advised the UN Security Council to bring the issue to the International Criminal Court.

The commission also recommended that the UN set up an office to monitor the human rights situation in North Korea.

The South Korean government initially proposed Seoul and Songdo in Incheon, where several international organizations have headquarters or offices, as possible locations.

From the start, the OHCHR favored Seoul because of its symbolic value and also because it would be ideal for contacting defectors.

OHCHR personnel likewise completed an inspection of the location and were preparing to open a temporary office next month.

A foreign affairs source said, “So far, the Seoul city government has not given their official position, and nothing has been decided.”

In contrast, a Seoul city official said, “The central government has not made a final decision. If we get a request, we can cooperate,” indicating the city and national governments are passing the buck between each other.

But South Korea does not have a law addressing the issue due to conflicts between the ruling conservatives and the left-leaning opposition.

For the first time in a decade, the ruling and opposition parties are showing faint signs of a willingness to pass a North Korea human rights act, but no progress has been made.

Six bills on the issue are still sitting in National Assembly committees without being deliberated.

A member of a local civic group for North Korean defectors’ rights said, “While the world is heated about North Korean human rights issues, South Korea, the closest neighbor, is cool toward it.”

BY YOO JEE-HYE, SARAH KIM[sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]







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