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Lessons from Germany for transitional justice in NK

Jihae Lee, intern  |  2015-08-03 17:58

Image: TJWG

North Koreas apprehension of citizens without due process of law, its systematic political prison camps, and myriad other violations of human rights are gradually gaining more attention from the international community. And so, within this social milieu, a group of NGOs convened to shed light on how to bring about justice for North Korean human rights victims. 

Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), Social Science Korea (SSK) Human Right Forum, and Heart for Korea (HEKO) hosted a joint symposium entitled, Transitional Justice Measures in Germany and Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, in Seoul on July 28th. This conference sought to devise methods for South Korea and the international community to approach and combat the systematic violation of human rights by North Korean security entities. 

At the forefront of discussions taking place at the conference was the topic of Germanys treatment of the legacies of human rights abuses committed by former East German policing organs. Upon reunification of the country, West Germany extended relative tolerance to human rights perpetrators of East Germany; this tolerance was ascribed to what was deemed as patent repentance on the part of the former governing party of East Germany, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED).

The Ministry for State Security of East Germany had committed a multitude of human rights violations; however, only a handful of commanders were punished while lower-ranking officers who simply followed superiors commands were pardoned, Park Sang Bong, the head of German Reunification Research Institute, explained at the event. 

Daily NK followed up after the event with Hubert Younghwan Lee, head of TJWG, who added, Sadly, it commonly happens in many societies in transition that the majority of perpetrators are not held fully accountable because, among other reasons, politicians are often afraid of punishing those who can mobilize a group that resists transition. Politicians believe that strong punishments might further exacerbate internal political conflicts and thus hinder the processes for reconciliation and peace. However, impunity often comes at the expense of truth and justice for victims of serious abuses 

Nevertheless, reunification is not the only viable channel to see justice for those who have long suffered from methodical oppression of their most basic human rights. Koo Jeong Woo, associate professor at Sungkyunkwan University, explained, North Korea has signed various human rights treaties. It ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1981, the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities in 2013, etc. That gives the international community the legal foundation to hold North Korea accountable for its violations of these treaties. 

Lee expounded on this assertion, pointing out that while Germany offers useful insight in terms of a reunification scenario on the Korean Peninsula, a different window of opportunity may open for socio-political change in North Korea-- even without reunification. "To be prepared for such a case, we need to pay attention to many other countries where transition happened internally," he said.

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