South Korea’s new North Korean Human Rights Law had its first anniversary on March 2. The anniversary of the legislation’s passing comes with mixed reviews on the progress made thus far on its implementation. The bill was first introduced in 2005, with the expectation that it would pass immediately, but it became an unfortunate victim of partisan politics for over a decade.
The centerpiece of the law, the North Korean Human Rights Foundation, has yet to launch due to political infighting over the appointment of the foundation’s directors.
The foundation’s board is to be composed of twelve individuals in total, with two additional officials from the Unification Ministry supplementing the National Assembly’s ten nominees. Five are to be nominated from each party. Only two of the board’s positions will be full time, its chairman of the board and the secretary general. The chairman of the board is determined by a vote of the foundation’s board, while the secretary general will be appointed by the chairman.
But the opposition Minjoo Party has refused to nominate its candidates, claiming that the rules are unfair. As the rules stand, the ruling party is set to control seven of the twelve votes – five from the National Assembly plus two from the Unification Ministry. This makes it likely that the chairman of the board and the secretary general will come as a nomination from their party. For this reason, the Minjoo Party is demanding that one full-time member of the board be a representative of the minority party.
Daily NK sat down for an interview with Lawyers for Korean Peninsula Human Rights and Unification Chief Kim Tae Hoon (pictured left) on March 2, 2017, who also works as a criminal lawyer.
Daily NK (DNK): The opposition Minjoo Party is delaying the appointment of its directors to the North Korean Human Rights Foundation. Are there any options to accelerate progress and find a solution?
Kim Tae Hoon (Mr. Kim): This is truly an unexpected turn. The North Korean Human Rights Law passed the National Assembly, and the creation of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation was stipulated. Under normal circumstances, the creation of the foundation would proceed normally. The opposition is violating the law. Disciplinary action should be taken, or they should forfeit their position.
DNK: Does that mean that it is time to think about how the foundation can be launched even though the government has not yet filled all the director seats?
Mr. Kim: The foundation’s leadership relies on the board of directors. Without them, it is hard to make any sort of headway.
DNK: What is the primary goal of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation?
Mr. Kim: The fundamental goal of the foundation is to support NGOs leading the field in the North Korean human rights movement. It is supposed to act as a bridge between the NGOs and the Unification Ministry.
When the foundation’s support system begins, NGOs can fill in the gaps that the government has been less able to make progress on. The government has been centrally concerned with overall relations, so it hasn’t been able to make much progress on information dissemination into North Korea. There is no clause in the law directly mentioning information distribution, so it will be up to the foundation whether they want to support it.
DNK: Even if the foundation is launched, there is still another problem remaining. Certain NGOs are wary of being called instruments of the far right if they get involved with the foundation, so they are already starting to apply the brakes.
Mr. Kim: Our society is too ideological in some regards. Some people are already starting to regard the foundation as a rightist institution. But North Korean human rights was originally a leftist value.
Who was responsible for providing momentum that resulted in the adoption of the UN Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK and the subsequent Commission of Inquiry? It wasn’t just the government. The role of NGOs in that process was quite large. They weren’t ordered to do so; they contributed to the cause voluntarily. Unlike other advanced nations, South Korea lacks the infrastructure to support NGOs.
DNK: Since the country’s domestic affairs are in disarray at the moment, I can’t imagine that the North Korean Human Rights Law is a priority within the National Assembly right now.
Mr. Kim: There was an anniversary seminar to celebrate the one year mark of the passage of the North Korean Human Rights law. Presidential candidates were invited. They were asked to attend and say that the foundation’s launch is an urgent issue. In the end, nobody ended up going. These people talk at length about democratic principles, but we can be skeptical about their commitment.
24 million North Koreans are constitutionally considered our citizens. These individuals are suffering from human rights violations, with their oppressive leader going as far as to murder his own half-brother in broad daylight. If the politicians have no interest in this matter, how can they become presidential candidates?
The citizens have to evaluate how events are turning out very carefully. The presidential candidates speak endlessly about human rights and democracy, but do they really have the background and record to justify those positions? If they don’t have the qualifications, then they are beyond populists. Foreign diplomats attended the seminar in droves, but South Korea’s own presidential candidates couldn’t show their face? It’s an embarrassing state of affairs.
DNK: What can we do to break the standoff?
Mr. Kim: The people need to wake the politicians up. Politicians are afraid of the people and as a result, together voices must rise in support of North Korean human rights. Up until now, civil society has sluggishly battled to advance the North Korean human rights movement, but this should be a grassroots movement from now on.
On March 1st, there were two rival protests at Gwanghwamun Plaza – the candlelight protests [in support of Park Geun Hye’s impeachment] and the ROK flag demonstrations [supporting President Park Geun-hye]. The two groups approached one another with discontent and fury, but they could come together on the North Korean human rights issue. If they took all that combative energy, and channeled it towards communicating human rights messages to the North Korean authorities, it would be powerful. South Korean presidential issues will come and go (impeachment or not), but the human rights issue is here to stay.
DNK: Despite these many hiccups, at least the North Korean Human Rights Record Center and the North Korean Human Rights Record Archive were established by law. If I asked you to evaluate the progress made in one year on these fronts, what would you say?
It is encouraging to see that these two agencies have been created and are starting to make progress. I do have to point out, however, that it is not ideal that the two entities are separate. If created as originally intended, the archives would be managed by research agencies like the Ministry of Justice and the National Human Rights Commission. The archive would not be responsible for the investigations. Those should be carried out by other agencies.
But since the record center operates under the Ministry of Unification, the system isn’t exactly efficient. This means the Unification Ministry has yet another job to do on top of worrying about dialogue and cooperation measures with North Korea. The fact that the law states that the Ministry has to have communication with the North is also troublesome.
DNK: Can you elaborate on that position, please?
Mr. Kim: North-South relations are dynamic, so South Korea’s approach to its North Korea policy should be adaptive. It is meaningless to force it through legislation. This means that the North Korea-facing department is abusing power if it chooses to engage in communication with North Korea only when circumstances are right. Why should the South engage in compulsory dialogue with an interlocutor that oppresses its own people and does not want to meaningfully communicate?
The humanitarian support problem is similar. Why does the North Korean Human Rights Act reiterate language that is already clearly stipulated in the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act? There are human rights pressure and human rights dialogue…. there are too many contradictions.
DNK: Isn’t humanitarian support categorized as a human rights effort?
Mr. Kim: Humanitarian support should be considered part of North Korea policy. According to the law, humanitarian support cannot be compulsory. In fact, right now we are in a period of a support freeze because the citizens are not interested in it. The North Korean authorities embezzle all the funds we give, so people think it is pointless to give more. Furthermore, the North Korean economy has improved a bit thanks to the jangmadang [markets], so people don’t have as much trouble buying food and necessary items. It is a much different situation than it was just 20 years ago. These small freedoms are related to the most basic of human rights.
DNK: You pointed out a number of observations with regard to the content and implementation of legislation. In your view, is it possible to successfully pressure North Korea with insufficient legislation?
Mr. Kim: Fortunately, the mere existence of the North Korean human rights law has symbolic significance. It absolutely does put pressure on North Korea. North Korea immediately responded to the bill’s passage by complaining through propaganda that South Korea was interfering with the North’s affairs.
The fact that South Korea is collecting and recording the crimes and corruption of North Korea’s ruling elite results in significant pressure.
DNK: What do you think we should expect around this time next year, when the law turns two years old?
Mr. Kim: The Korean peninsula is facing moral difficulties right now. It is hard to know how to express our anger that 3 million North Koreans starved to death and tens of thousands were locked away in political prison camps in the late 1990s.
On March 1st, we saw pro and anti-Park protesting, but is this really the only issue that we are upset about? If we continue to ignore the suffering of 24 million North Koreans and refuse to express our disappointment, we will remain a second-class country forever.
The Republic of Korea is a country that respects the rule of law. We need to implement the legislation that has passed the National Assembly. The international community has big expectations for South Korea. Many different ideas, such as referring Kim Jong Un to the international criminal court (ICC), have been suggested. But South Korea is struggling to keep up with these trends. We need to engage in a much more determined effort.