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(News Focus) New law sets stage for S. Korea to zero in on N.K. human rights abuses

2016/08/30 15:10

By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Aug. 30 (Yonhap) -- A law on North Korea's human rights record is set to go into effect next month, paving the way for South Korea to play a role in shedding light on crimes against humanity and improving the North's dismal situation, experts here said Tuesday.

Under the law that goes into effect on Sunday, South Korea plans to establish a center tasked with investigating the North's human rights abuses and a foundation to support relevant civic groups to keep track of the situation.

A North Korea human rights act was passed by parliament in March, 11 years after similar acts were scrapped amid political wrangling between conservatives and liberals. Liberal lawmakers had shied away from taking issue with the North's human rights out of concern that it could strain inter-Korean relations.

Experts said that the passage of the law indicates that Seoul will no longer take a low-key stance over the North's rights violations at a time when the international community is taking the issue seriously.

"The law sets the stage for South Korea to systemically implement its policy on North Korea's human rights," said Han Dong-ho, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU).

"South Korea is sending a strong message to North Korea that it will compile the North's rights abuses and won't sit idle on the matter," he added.

North Korea's serious human rights violations gained the international limelight on the back of a landmark report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) released in early 2014.

The report calls for the U.N. Security Council to refer Pyongyang's "crimes against humanity" to the International Criminal Court. The U.N. General Assembly adopted relevant resolutions for the second consecutive year in 2015.

North Korea has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. Pyongyang has bristled at such criticism, calling it a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.

Pyongyang does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps tight control over outside information.

Since taking office in late 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have ordered the public execution of more than 100 officials and ordinary North Koreans as he goes about strengthening his hold over the country.

Experts said that the law would allow Seoul to exert more pressure on North Korea on top of international sanctions and its own punitive measures over the North's nuclear and missile tests.

Seoul is believed to be studying a plan to unveil a list of North Korean violators of human rights following Washington's latest move to impose sanctions on the North's human rights offenders and agencies.

In July, the U.S. blacklisted North Korea's leader and other top officials, as well as state agencies, for their roles in Pyongyang's grave rights violations. It marked the first time that the U.S. imposed sanctions over the issue.

"If Seoul releases the list, it would serve as significant pressure on perpetrators as the government could use it as evidence for possible indictments in the future," said Kim Tae-hoon, a representative for Hanbyun, a group of lawyers on the North's human rights.

But a controversy lingers in regards to the scope of the law's application due to debate over whether it is possible for Seoul to support North Korean defectors living in a third country via civic groups.

Article 3 of the law stipulates that North Koreans are defined as those who live in areas above the military demarcation line and put the basis of their living, including immediate family members, in such regions.

"North Korean overseas workers are subject to the law. But there should be consensus among ruling and opposition lawmakers over the issue of assistance to North Korean defectors in a third country," said a government official.

Opposition lawmakers were opposed to the idea of including such North Korean defectors in the scope of the law's application.

They claim that if Seoul gives financial support to civic groups' moves to help such defectors, it could effectively spur defections orchestrated by the government.

There is also concern over a possible diplomatic row with countries where North Korean defectors stay if Seoul indirectly supports such people, experts say.

On the other hand, some NGOs said that the definition of North Koreans should be extensively interpreted by including North Korean defectors in a third country as they are in a blind spot of protection while facing the risk of being arrested and repatriated to the North.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a U.S. non-government agency, said that political compromises in the process of passing the bill "precluded" human rights NGOs from receiving assistance when they rescue North Koreans facing the danger of forcible repatriation.

"Ignoring their plight in the implementation of (the South Korean law) is contrary to what should be the spirit of such an act," Scarlatoiu said.

Another contentious point is lack of details over how to hold inter-Korean talks on Pyongyang's human rights issue.

Article 7 stipulates that the government should seek to open such dialogue over "important" agenda items related to the improvement of Pyongyang's human rights record, without elaborating.

A government official said that as inter-Korean ties remain frayed, there is a limit in clarifying details over inter-Korean dialogue on the human rights.

In the Aug. 15 speech to mark Korea's liberation from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, President Park Geun-hye sent a rare message targeting ordinary North Koreans, calling on them to join efforts for unification. She urged the North's leadership and elites to give up its nuclear and missile programs.

"The focus should be first placed on how to faithfully implement the law," said Han, the KINU research fellow, adding that efforts to pursue accountability should continue.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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