[Viewpoint] Pass the North Korean rights act

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[Viewpoint] Pass the North Korean rights act

North Korea Freedom Week was commemorated two weeks ago in Seoul. Every year, the North Korean Freedom Coalition, led by Dr. Suzanne Scholte, sponsors various events throughout the week to urge North Korean authorities to improve human rights conditions in their country and to make the international community more aware of the issue. This year, a wide range of events were held, including an exhibition of photos revealing the truth about North Korean camps for political prisoners and public forums to advocate the need for the enactment of a North Korean human rights act.

With interest growing on the issue, the international community has repeatedly urged North Korean authorities to end human rights abuses. Every year since 2003, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has adopted a resolution on North Korean human rights that expresses concerns about the grave and extensive violations of rights in the country. In its annual Freedom in the World for 2011, Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO that tracks and monitors human rights abuses throughout the world, placed North Korea among the “worst of the worst” for the 39th year in a row.

In the meantime, the South Korean government’s concern for human rights in North Korea has grown stronger. At the 63rd general assembly of the United Nations, South Korea co-sponsored a resolution on human rights in North Korea along with the European Union and Japan.

The government also supported international conferences and various domestic and international activities aimed at improving human rights conditions in North Korea. South Korea joins the international community in addressing the issue not only from the perspective of upholding universal values but also in light of its desire to achieve reunification.

In 2005, a group of South Korean lawmakers introduced a North Korean Human Rights Act in the National Assembly.

The bill failed to pass the legislature that year, but was resubmitted in 2008. In February last year, the act passed the foreign affairs, trade, and unification committee, and it is currently being reviewed in the legislation and judiciary committee.

Critics argue that enacting the North Korean Human Rights Act will only harm inter-Korean relations and worsen human rights conditions for the North Korean people. However, I believe that though North Korea may rail against us for a while, in the long term, the act will help put inter-Korean relations on the right track and improve human rights conditions for North Koreans.

South Korea’s co-sponsoring of the United Nations resolution predictably provoked a backlash from North Korea. Yet, in reality, North Korea’s reactions have had only minimal effects on inter-Korean relations. Fears that the act could worsen human rights conditions in North Korea are unfounded.

There is no convincing precedent worldwide in which outsiders’ expressions of concern led to a deterioration of human rights conditions in the country in question.

It only stands to reason that North Korea will become more conscious of the concerns and attention of the outside world, and accordingly become gradually more interested in improving human rights. A good example can be seen when North Korea added the phrase “respect for human rights” in its revised Constitution in April 2008.

Such a change seems to reflect Pyongyang’s growing awareness of the concerns voiced by the international community. Other newly drafted North Korean laws also included references to human rights improvement, implying that North Korea has no choice but to gradually pay heed to the demands of the international community.

The North Korean Human Rights Act now pending in the South Korean National Assembly contains several important points.

First, the act proposes to establish a North Korean human rights foundation. The foundation would be responsible for compiling a survey of human rights conditions in the North, providing assistance to human rights groups and promoting various activities at home and abroad to address the issue. The foundation will thereby play a central role in improving human rights conditions in North Korea.

Second, the act would facilitate the establishment of a North Korean human rights archive. The archive will study, collect, record and preserve human rights violations committed in North Korea, which would be used as evidence in the future. West Germany also set up a similar institution, the Salzgitter Center, to collect and record human rights violations that took place in East Germany.

Third, the act appoints an ambassador-at-large for North Korean human rights in order to promote close cooperation and consultation with the international community on the issue.

Lastly, the act calls for greater transparency in the distribution of humanitarian aid within North Korea. The act prescribes that when humanitarian aid is provided to the North, the delivery, distribution and monitoring of such aid must meet international standards and the aid must reach those in need.

When passed, the North Korea Human Rights Act will certainly improve human rights conditions in North Korea and increase transparency in aid distribution. The act would also help build more sound inter-Korean relations and promote the very values we want to uphold in a unified Korea.

*The writer is vice minister of the Ministry of Unification.

By Um Jong-sik
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