Human rights are left behind as dialogue grows

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Human rights are left behind as dialogue grows


Activists from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, PSCORE Human Rights and other non-governmental organizations that focus on human rights in North Korea host a panel discussion at the UN headquarters in New York City on Wednesday, the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [YONHAP]

As relations between the two Koreas warm, defectors from the North and activists are worried that human rights are being sacrificed for reconciliation.

It has barely been two years since the North Korean Human Rights Act — ratified by the South’s National Assembly in March 2016 — went into effect in September 2016. Yet the two human rights archives established via this law under the Unification Ministry and the Justice Ministry have since become paper organizations.

The Human Rights Foundation — an agency designed to finance and support research into human rights violations in the North — is also flailing. It’s been held hostage by political arguments in the South’s legislature and is regarded as a tax sinkhole. It still hasn’t opened.
The Blue House, keen on normalizing relations with Pyongyang, appears to be maintaining the status quo and ignoring new issues when it comes to human rights in North Korea.

With North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s invitation to Pope Francis making headlines around the world, concerns over the country’s dismal human rights record has once again surfaced.

The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) is struggling to spread awareness of North Korean human rights violations in the South.

“There will be no brushing off of human rights if the pope goes to North Korea,” said Yoon Yeo-sang, the chief director of the organization’s North Korean Human Rights Archives. “We will send and explain relevant resources to the Vatican’s ambassador [to South Korea] in order to let the Holy See know about the human rights situation in North Korea.” Yoon is currently a member of the Special Episcopal Commission for the Reconciliation of the Korean People, a special commission run by the Catholic Church in Korea.

With help from the Ministry of Unification, the Database Center has identified 114,454 human rights violations in the North since 2008.
The data shows that suppression of the right to life as well as the rights of those detained or convicted for crimes increased since 2010, compared to the decade before, when Kim Jong-il ruled the country. Legally sentenced executions comprised 62 percent of all counts of violations against the right to life, while summary executions comprised 2.7 percent. There were even cases of murders committed directly by public officials. Other alarming cases in the database included 38 murders caused by biological or chemical experimentation on humans.

On the other hand, there were signs of some progress on recognizing human dignity as well as the freedom to move. On the whole, human rights appear to be improving slightly, the center’s researchers said. There was not a single case of human rights violations against people for participating in politics or organizing rallies, according to the data.

One North Korean defector vividly recalled the public executions that he witnessed in the North. He said in 2009, he watched the public execution of a villager for cutting a piece of electric wire near an aerospace college in Wonsan, Kangwon Province. The defector, who is in his 40s and now works in the service industry in the South, said the villager was gathering wild herbs in a field when he found a discarded wire on the ground, which he took back home to use as a rabbit fence. It turned out the wire served as a phone line for a nearby military base. Security officials chose to execute the villager for damaging national property. North Koreans have been sentenced to death for petty crimes like smuggling CDs with South Korean content or selling alcohol on Kim Il Sung’s birthday, the defector added.

This defector said the current South Korean administration’s reluctance to make human rights an issue as it normalizes relations with Pyongyang is a huge disappointment to the North’s citizens as well as defectors. He said that as long as human rights are overlooked for the sake of holding regular summits with Kim Jong-un, North Koreans are deprived of their only chance for justice. Regular surveys of defectors by the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, commonly known as Hanawon, were also no longer as detailed as before, he added.

One of the primary reasons why data collection agencies were set up as part of the human rights law passed by South Korea’s legislature in 2016 was to record human rights violations and seek justice in the event of reunification.

These agencies were inspired by West Germany’s Central Registry of State Judicial Administrations, which was established in 1961 to record cases of human rights violations by the East German government, such as the indiscriminate executions of those who attempted to flee the East. Yet the registry proved to be a continuous source of controversy in the West. Many claimed it stood as an obstacle to eventual German reunification and called for its dissolution.

West Germany’s precedent mirrors the political realities of South Korea. The passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act by the National Assembly was fiercely controversial back in 2016.

The law set guidelines for the protection and advancement of human rights for North Korean citizens, and established a number of agencies like the Human Rights Foundation and the Human Rights Archive.

But only two years into the law’s implementation, the Justice Ministry found itself in hot water after it shut down the Human Rights Archive’s office in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi, in order to move it to a smaller office in nearby Yongin. The ministry explained that the move was prompted due to a lack of space in Gwacheon, not due to neglect by the government.

Defectors and activists see a different story. Current laws give the Human Rights Foundation the authority to investigate and research human rights violations in the North. It was to have 12 staff members, with the ruling and opposition parties choosing five members each and the other two selected based on recommendations by the Ministry of Unification. But the ruling party’s opposition to a number of nominated members delayed the foundation’s launch, and its offices were shut down due to burdens incurred by a leasing contract. Around 700 million won ($615,046) in taxpayer money is believed to have been wasted in this process.

The fact that the office was shut down before the Human Rights Foundation was even inaugurated suggests the government regards human rights in the North as a political issue, defectors and activists argue.

Next year, only 800 million won has been allocated to the Ministry of Unification to deal with North Korean human rights issues. This is an unprecedented 10 billion won cut from the 10.8 billion won allocated for this year. In addition, the appointment of a new “Ambassador for Human Rights in North Korea,” a Foreign Ministry post created by the human rights law in 2016, has been delayed, effectively rendering the position meaningless.

“The Unification Ministry unilaterally told us they would not renew their contract to conduct joint research with us once it expires at the end of the year,” Yoon said. “These changes have made it impossible for the Hanawon to conduct its regular annual surveys of North Korean defectors starting from next year.”

In addition to suggesting that the current administration is giving in to the North’s demands, the opposition is arguing that the government fears it will be on the defense if human rights issues are brought to the forefront.

At a National Assembly seminar on the North’s human rights last week, panel members from opposition parties attacked the Moon administration for neglecting the issue, despite the fact that both the UN General Assembly and that the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee condemned Pyongyang’s human rights abuses.

The UN and other human rights organizations stress that the South Korean government’s response is critical to dealing with the serious violations that remain commonplace in the North.

“It is unclear whether we are fighting the North Korean government or our own government on the issue,” said Yoon.

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