Inspections of defector groups were aboveboard, Seoul tells UN

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Inspections of defector groups were aboveboard, Seoul tells UN

A North Korean defector group in South Korea prepares to float balloons carrying propaganda leaflets and other items into North Korea in 2016. Such acts have been carried out regularly by activist groups. [YONHAP]

A North Korean defector group in South Korea prepares to float balloons carrying propaganda leaflets and other items into North Korea in 2016. Such acts have been carried out regularly by activist groups. [YONHAP]

 
Responding to a United Nations inquiry, South Korea on Sunday said it complied with international human rights laws during its recent inspections of North Korean defector organizations in the country.
 
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) posted on its website a reply from South Korea’s permanent mission in Geneva, Switzerland, regarding a request to clarify how the measures conformed to international and domestic laws governing human rights.
 
The query from UN Special Rapporteur on North Korea Tomás Ojea Quintana relates to the inspections carried out by Seoul’s Ministry of Unification on 25 government-registered civic groups dealing with North Korea issues from August to October.  
 
The ministry at the time said the inspections were part of an effort to verify whether the organizations were operating in accordance with their declared purposes, but some of the groups accused it of persecuting them in response to North Korea’s strong objections to anti-Pyongyang activists floating propaganda leaflets across the border. 
 
In September, Quintana called on Seoul to explain the basis for the inspections, given concerns that they could have the effect of intimidating groups.
 
The response from Seoul, sent on Oct. 29, stressed that the South Korean government’s measures abided by international laws as well as its own Constitution and domestic laws on human rights in the North.  
 
The response noted that the Unification Ministry was examining 109 groups registered with the ministry that had insufficient records for their operations, and that only 13 of these were run by defectors from North Korea.  
 
The purpose behind the inspections was not to punish these organizations, but to strengthen their capacities to function in line with their declared purposes, Seoul said, adding the groups had plenty of opportunities to convey their positions to the government.
 
Propaganda leaflet dispatches were carried out in several instances this year by two activist groups run by North Korean defectors — Fighters for a Free North Korea and Keun Saem.
 
In retaliation for what it claimed was Seoul’s failure to restrain such activities, Pyongyang demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong without prior warning in June, shortly after severing official communications with the South.  
 
Seoul subsequently moved to restrain further leaflet activities, then revoked the operational licenses of the two civic groups responsible. South Korean police in late June also raided their offices, measures that drew significant backlash from international human rights organizations, including the OHCHR. 
 
Regarding the cancellations of the two groups’ operation permits, which deprives them of the ability to claim tax deductions for membership fees and other donations, Seoul said the organizations had endangered the safety and livelihoods of residents living near the border by raising inter-Korean tensions in violation of a military agreement between the two Koreas.
 
The right to free expression must be guaranteed insofar as such groups respect the rights of others, the response from Seoul said, noting in particular the risks faced by the 2.6 million residents living near the inter-Korean border.
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, YONHAP   [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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