One year on, panelists discuss the challenges and implications of the North Korean Human Rights Act.
Image: Daily NK
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification hosted a forum recently to mark the first anniversary of the passing of the North Korean Human Rights Act. Participants from various human rights NGOs in Seoul spoke on the importance of full implementation of the act.
One of the most pressing issues raised at the forum was the need to reach a wider audience in North Korea that receives information from the outside. International pressure alone cannot change the North Korean government, and changes must be driven by improving knowledge amongst the North’s citizens themselves.
Unification Media Group’s Lee Kwang Baek echoed this sentiment in his speech, noting that “Despite the Human Rights Act’s passing, there still exist major obstacles in promoting the idea of human rights within the North”.
Lee believes the human rights problem is too overwhelming to tackle all at once, and that the most effective approach involves a constant and steady flow of information targeted at the largest possible number of people. He listed radio broadcasts as well as dramas and movies smuggled in on USB sticks as the most important methods that are currently influencing North Korean citizens.
Lee also requested that the South Korean government approve access to stronger radio frequencies for private broadcasters in order to help them reach a wider audience. He said that “with our current capabilities, [civic] broadcasters are only able to reach about 1 – 2% of North Koreans,” adding that at the current rate, they are not able to reach a critical mass in their audience to spread outside information within the North. He believes that such action is necessary and will help to implement the Human Rights Act, but that it requires urgent government action.
Kim Soo Am from the Korea Institute for National Unification spoke on a similar note, stressing the importance of improving the average North Korean citizen’s knowledge of the outside world. “With the increasing marketization of the country’s economy comes greater interaction among citizens from different regions and backgrounds, which deserves a new strategy tailored to the changing habits of North Korea’s citizens,” she said.
Many at the forum also emphasized the importance of sources within the North who are providing information about the true nature of their system, which they say can then be broadcast back into North Korea, helping to expand their fellow citizens’ understanding of their own country. They hope that information about the true behavior of Kim Jong Un and other top cadres, and about corruption within the party, will help educate and change minds. Some additionally stressed that information regarding local incidents and weather disasters is vital to defectors seeking to stay up to date on events in their hometowns.
“These days we are mostly getting information to citizens through radio broadcasts or smuggled USB sticks, but we also have to begin thinking about a way for them to access the internet,” said Mr. Lee, underlining the importance of helping the average citizen realize their right to free information.
However, the broadcasting community feels that the government needs to provide more resources in order to expand the number of correspondents in the North. The hope is that with more public-private cooperation, they will be able to expand this number to hundreds of correspondents, exponentially increasing the dissemination of information within the North.
Timing is also a concern, as many on the panel expressed apprehension over the effects of the current impeachment proceedings in South Korea and the change in administration sometime this year. Strengthening public-private cooperation was cited as key to the continuity of these programs and to the goals of improving the impact of efforts by NGOs, despite the potential for change in the South’s official North Korea policy.
Head of NKnet Han Ki Hong said that during the Roh Moo Hyun administration, the government was not very engaged with North Korean human rights organizations, but that things have improved since then. “Now that our country’s policy on North Korea’s human rights is cemented in law, we do not have to worry about big changes, though we can expect some typical wrangling if the current opposition wins in the next election,” Han said during his presentation.
Han also believes that all NGOs nevertheless have a responsibility to keep up the pressure on the next administration to ensure continued support of their mission. “We stand with others in criticizing the government’s failure to nominate a chairman for the North Korean Human Rights Foundation in accordance with the Human Rights Act,” Han continued, “but we believe there is much to be done in the way of improving ties between the various NGOs and the government in working on these matters.”
Lee Young Hwan of Transitional Justice Working Group added that “the government’s relationship with NGOs has to change.” Lee believes that the government has a role to play in advancing diplomacy as well as assisting NGOs in pressuring the North on matters of human rights, but that the human rights organizations themselves must also unite around a shared platform regarding the most effective approaches.
During his concluding address, the government’s Unification Minister Hong Yong Pyo emphasized the absence of human rights awareness in North Korea, where the people are expected to sacrifice themselves for the nation over things that are quite unfathomable to the outside observer. Hong highlighted an example, saying, “Last year, the North’s official newspaper ran a story glorifying the deaths of a student and teacher who drowned while trying to save the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from damage during a major flood.”
“Last year’s North Korea Human Rights Act represents a significant step towards protecting the sanctity of life for citizens like that teacher and student,” Hong added. He expressed regret that the North Korean Human Rights Foundation has not yet been established, as he believes it will go a long way towards rallying the community around a common platform. Hong concluded by assuring the forum’s participants that he is working tirelessly along with members of the National Assembly to get the foundation up and running as soon as possible.