[VIEWPOINT]Human rights in North Korea

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[VIEWPOINT]Human rights in North Korea

The U.S. House of Representatives has unanimously passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, and Korea is debating the pros and cons. What message does this act contain?
This bill amounts to a master plan of the United States to improve North Korean human rights. The bill lists wretched human rights conditions item by item. In North Korea, 200,000 political inmates are subject to torture, labor exploitation, and even fatal chemical experiments; since the 1990s, over 2 million people have died of starvation, and numerous defectors from North Korea lead a miserable life in China and are forcibly repatriated. The bill is based on the grand premise of a peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula and clearly states a plan to implement $24 million every year for four years, beginning next year.
First, the implementers of human rights improvements in North Korea will be from the United States, South Korea, Northeast Asian countries, international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, non-governmental agencies and broadcasters. The United States, South Korea and Northeast Asian countries will raise the issue of North Korean human rights as an essential element in future negotiations with North Korea, and the U.S. government will support organizations and people that provide humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees. The bill also proposes that the UN High Commissioner assist and arbitrate for North Korean refugees and that the Chinese government observe the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
Second, the bill distinguishes assistance to North Korean residents and to refugees. For the residents, humanitarian assistance amounting to $20 million will be provided every year, and the availability of foreign information will be increased. They will have access to news from the outside world through Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America, U.S. government-initiated radio programs. Defectors from North Korea will be considered refugees, so that refugee camps and shelters will be provided and opportunities to seek refugee status in the United States will be given.
Third, transparency and mutualism will be ensured in the provision of all humanitarian aid. The United States has provided over 2 million tons of food to North Korea since 1995, but transparency was not ensured in its distribution. Accordingly, the bill focuses on the delivery of assistance to the most vulnerable residents. It links humanitarian assistance to the respect for human rights in North Korea, reunions between North Korean residents and Korean-Americans and the resolution of the problems faced by those abducted to North Korea and defectors from North Korea.
Since the early 1990s, North Korean human rights were dealt with as a major concern in the UN General Assembly, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International. Recently, even a special position for reporting on North Korean human rights was established in the UNHCR. This bill is a part of greater efforts to improve human rights conditions by the international community. The U.S. Congress is preparing bills on promoting human rights in Vietnam, Haiti, Burundi, and Cambodia in addition to North Korea.
There are many cases where human rights oppression under the communist regimes was solved or alleviated through the efforts of the international community, including the United States. While supporting East Germany, the West German government never looked away from the human rights conditions of East German citizens in order to maintain the conciliatory atmosphere between East and West Germany. When infringement of human rights in China was made public with the incident in Tiananmen Square, British Prime Minister John Major visited Beijing on a mission of “human rights diplomacy.” Delegates on human rights from the U.S. Congress conducted campaigns to save the lives of Chinese dissidents. At that time, the Chinese government resisted, advocating the supremacy of sovereignty and complaining about interference in domestic affairs. It said that human rights were subordinate concepts of sovereign rights. But as Western countries and international organizations, civic groups and the international media constantly questioned the human rights conditions in China, the Chinese government changed to a more flexible attitude.
If we make practical use of the bill, we can facilitate international cooperation on abductees, defectors, and human rights conditions in North Korea and reduce diplomatic frictions and economic burdens. If we regard the international community’s move to improve North Korean human rights as “interference into domestic affairs,” North Korea may fall into a dead space of human rights where no one can speak up about infringements. Furthermore, in the international community, the Republic of Korea could join the lines of countries that either support or condone human rights oppression.
Human rights are a universal value and the basic rights of mankind that transcend ideas, ideologies, regimes and religions. Anyone who opposes the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act would support infringement on the human rights of North Koreans. We should, then, no longer turn away from preparing measures to protect human rights there. This is the least we can do for our fellow Koreans.

* The writer is a professor emeritus of international relations at Sejong University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Joung-won
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