South’s law covers North’s overseas workers

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South’s law covers North’s overseas workers

North Korean laborers working overseas will be covered by the South’s first-ever law governing human rights conditions in the communist regime, the Ministry of Unification said Tuesday.

The North Korean Human Rights Act finally went into force last month, after 11 years of partisan wrangling over the content and purpose of the law. Its passage came in March at the National Assembly, and the Park Geun-hye administration approved last month a relevant enforcement ordinance.

“The term ‘North Koreans’ in this act means persons who have their domicile, lineal ascendants and descendants, spouse, workplace and other bases of living north of the Military Demarcation Line [MDL],” Article 3 of the law says.

The ministry produces an interpretation of the definition on Tuesday, following Park’s message last week calling for North Koreans to defect to the South.

“North Korean workers staying in a third country are under the regime’s control,” said a ministry official. “Therefore, we concluded that they are covered by the law. It means conducting surveys on their human rights and protecting their rights are also possible under the law.”

According to a report presented last month by Oh Gyeong-Seob, deputy director of the Center for North Korean Human Rights Studies at the state-run Korea Institute of National Unification, up to 123,000 North Koreans are working in 40 countries around the world. Oh said about 30,000 are in Russia and up to 80,000 are in China. Another 5,000 are in Kuwait and 2,000 in the United Arab Emirates.

The number is about double that of conservative estimates made in the past.

But the government is cautious about applying the law to defectors in a third country.

“We have to consider diplomatic relations with the country,” he said. “It is also hard to say defectors’ lives are controlled by the North.”

According to the law, a state-funded North Korea Human Rights Foundation will be created and, under the Unification Ministry, it will be tasked to support non-governmental groups and research, survey and policy development efforts to improve human rights conditions in the North.

It remains to be seen whether the foundation may use its budget to support activist groups that protect and assist defectors in third countries. The ministry allocated 13.4 billion won ($12 million) for the foundation in next year’s budget.

The ministry said Tuesday that the foundation will not support activist groups that arrange defectors’ travels to the South from a third country, as it fears this may lead to a mass defection.

The clarification came in the aftermath of Park’s message urging North Korean soldiers and citizens to defect to the South. Park made perhaps the most provocative proposal by far to North Koreans at a ceremony to mark Armed Forces Day on Saturday.

“It’s hard to say that we will support the groups right away,” the ministry official said. “[The president’s remark] was to present the direction and to stress the miserable rights conditions in the North.”

Meanwhile, opposition parties condemned Park’s statement.

“The president’s comment is dangerous because it was based on the idea of the North’s collapse,” said Rep. Woo Sang-ho, floor leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea. “If the North collapses, about 40 million refugees for each district in Seoul will come. It will bring about a massive chaos in inter-Korean relations.”

Rep. Park Jie-won, acting head of the People’s Party, was also critical of Park’s suggestion.

“Mass defections by the North Korean people and the collapse of the regime are something we always have to prepare for,” he said. “But we must not create that situation.”

The ruling Saenuri Party, however, expressed a different view.

“The North Korean people are also citizens of our country,” said Rep. Chung Jin-suk, floor leader of the Saenuri Party. “If they face unjust hardships, the government must protect them.”

BY SER MYO-JA, CHUN SU-JIN [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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