Gov't plan to inspect defector groups provokes sharp backlash

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Gov't plan to inspect defector groups provokes sharp backlash

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification is pushing to inspect operations at dozens of groups registered as humanitarian organizations for North Korea, prompting activists to cry foul at what they claim is a crackdown from Seoul.  
 
The inspections will primarily consist of audits of the organizations’ finances as well as on-site visits by officials to verify whether the groups actually operate in accordance with their declared purposes and whether they are involved in activities that may run counter to their missions.
 
The ministry designated 25 government-registered civic groups for inspection, including 13 organizations for North Korean defectors in the South.
 
The move drew controversy from North Korea-related activists in Seoul, as well as right-wing politicians, who argued it represented a persecution of defectors.  
 
The groups argue the inspections are a follow up to the ministry’s decision last month to revoke the operation permits of two North Korean defector groups — Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuen Saem — on the basis that their campaigns to send propaganda leaflets into the regime “gravely hindered” efforts toward unification and jeopardized the safety of residents at the inter-Korean border.  
 
The leaflets, which contained propaganda criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his family, were cited by North Korea for its unilateral demolition of an inter-Korean liaison office in its border city of Kaesong in June.  
 
Since 1998, the Unification Ministry has only invoked its right to inspect civic groups four times, making this month’s probe particularly notable.  
 
The issue also prompted the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea to express concern with the activities of the South Korean government.
 
But others have questioned whether many of the civic groups were truly working to improve the human rights situation in the North.
 
Jeon Su-mi, a lawyer who formerly worked in one such organization, made headlines during a parliamentary hearing last week when she accused many groups of using the leaflet dispatches as a means to attract funding from right-wing political organizations in South Korea and the United States, despite knowing that the strategy is ineffective.  
 
In an interview with broadcaster YTN on Monday, Jeon claimed it was very difficult for a civilian in the North to come across leaflets scattered by South Korean activists through balloons, as most of them are collected by soldiers and officials each morning.
 
The balloon dispatches nonetheless continue, she said, because these groups are dependent on funding from large donors in the United States, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. nonprofit organization that aims to promote democracy around the world.  
 
Jeon further accused the civic groups of managing their finances with little transparency, alleging that operators would use donations for their own leisure, often at nighttime drinking establishments.  
 
Female defectors in South Korea were also subjected to frequent sexual harassment from men affiliated with such groups or from South Korean government workers, Jeon claimed.
 
“North Korea still has a conservative and hierarchical sexual culture, similar to that which existed in South Korea in the 1960s and 70s, in which women whose bodies have been dirtied by a man must be servile to him,” she said.  
 
Government and military officials in the South tasked with protecting or managing female defectors resettled in the South “know this fact and have consistently sexually harassed North Korean women,” she added.
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK   [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
 

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