Rival North Korean rights bills go to committee

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Rival North Korean rights bills go to committee

For the first time in nine years, lawmakers at the parliamentary unification committee began negotiations on Monday to narrow down their differences on two separate bills aimed at targeting the dismal human rights conditions in North Korea.

The idea of such a law used to provoke fierce partisan debate between conservatives and liberals, and this was the first time since 2005 that such bills were submitted to the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee.

The committee’s 23 members from the conservative Saenuri Party and liberal New Politics Alliance for Democracy will now try to iron out considerable differences in the two bills.

One of the bills is co-authored by 34 Saenuri lawmakers and is an integrated version of five previous bills proposed by the party. The other bill was submitted by Rep. Shim Jae-kwon of the NPAD.

The progress after nine years of impasse is illustrative of a shifting mood in the opposition on North Korean human rights. The NPAD has traditionally believed that addressing the North Korean human rights issue would only force Pyongyang into deeper isolation and make inter-Korean dialogue more difficult.

But with growing international condemnation of the Kim Jong-un regime, as exemplified by the United Nation’s Third Committee of the General Assembly calling for the referral of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, the NPAD said it will cooperate with the Saenuri in trying to pass a law.

The ruling party has repeatedly called on the NPAD to pass a bill by the end of this year.

But it remains far from clear whether the two sides can find middle ground and how far the bill could go in pressing Pyongyang to improve human rights.

Under the Saenuri’s bill, a human rights foundation created under the Ministry of Unification would be given responsibility of awarding financial aid to civic groups in the South working to improve North Korea’s human rights.

The NPAD opposes that plan, claiming it will aid civic groups like the one that sends balloons with propaganda leaflets across the border, which has infuriated North Korea and has become the focus of inter-Korean tension in recent months.

The two parties are also expected to butt heads over the Saenuri bill’s clause that would empower the Justice Ministry to collect and keep records of human rights violations in the North. The move is seen as strengthening the law by giving such responsibilities to law enforcement authorities rather than the Unification Ministry.

In its bill, the NPAD concentrates on improving human rights and the living standards of North Koreans via humanitarian aid and economic cooperation in a way that does not harm Seoul-Pyongyang relations.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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