Human rights act needed
In fact, the idea is not new. For the past nine years, conservative assemblymen have annually introduced versions of a North Korean Human Rights Act in the National Assembly. While the details of the bills have varied slightly, the general gist has remained the same: a strengthened institutional framework for the Korean government to address and document North Korean human rights abuses; a commitment to promoting greater international awareness of North Korean human rights abuses; the development of a North Korean Human Rights Action Plan; effective humanitarian aid and support for civic human rights activists.
Until now, however, such bills have regularly been rejected by progressive politicians. Progressives have tended to deem such initiatives as ineffective and detrimental to inter-Korean cooperation, and they have particularly objected to the provision of support for civic groups and the establishment of an archive to document North Korean human rights abuses. At times, progressive politicians have countered by introducing bills that focus on humanitarian aid rather than human rights, but these competing bills have invariably become the subject of shrill and repetitive partisan bickering rather than honest attempts at compromise.
The result of this inability to compromise has been a dismal failure of the South Korean state to effectively condemn the brutalities of the North Korean regime with a united voice. This failure stands in marked contrast to United States and Japan, each of which has adopted their own North Korean Human Rights Acts. It also stands in contrast to the international community as a whole, which is increasingly united and vocal in condemning the brutality of the Pyongyang regime, as evidenced by the UN Human Right Council’s consensus establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights. The Chairman of this Commission, Michael Kirby, has lamented the indifference of South Koreans to North Korean human rights abuses, which he contrasted with the active role of West German youth in raising East German human rights issues before German reunification.
There is some reason to hope that after nine years of partisan bickering, however, the time may indeed be ripe for the passage of a North Korean Human Rights Act. Korean progressives have become steadily more willing to speak out against North Korean human rights abuses in recent years. In the wake of allegations of pro-North Korea statements by far-left Unified Progressive Party members, mainstream progressives in the Democratic Party may also be feeling political pressure to clarify their opposition to the worst abuses of the Pyongyang regime. Conservatives, meanwhile, may finally be in a position to accept compromised language in the act that promotes humanitarian aid for North Korea in addition to condemning human rights abuses. In fact, increased humanitarian aid is entirely consistent with Park Geun-hye’s stated North Korea policy - in contrast to the preceding administration’s insistence on withholding aid while North Korea continued its nuclear weapons program.
Now it is necessary for the Korean people to insist that their elected representatives stop playing political football with North Korean human rights. The Democratic Party must propose a draft act that seriously condemns North Korean human rights and works actively to improve those rights. The Saenuri Party must accept an act that promotes both economic rights - for example, through the provision of humanitarian food and medical aid when needed - and civil and political rights. The Saenuri Party should also be willing to forgo support in the act for some of the more radical human rights groups, such as the activists who send leaflets to the North via balloons who have proven such an annoyance to the North Korean leadership (and South Korean progressives).
These compromises are possible. Members of both parties despise Kim Jong-un’s brutal human rights record, as does the rest of the international community. Now it is simply a matter of making sure that a sensible North Korean Human Rights Act does not fall victim to the grandstanding and political polarization that plagues so much of South Korean politics.
*The author is associate professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
by Andrew Wolman