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(2nd LD) S. Korean parliament passes N. Korean human rights bill

2016/03/03 00:07

(ATTN: CHANGES dateline, headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with details of the N. Korean human rights bill)

SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's parliament endorsed a long-stalled bill aimed at improving North Korea's dismal human rights situation.

The bill, which passed through the National Assembly's plenary session late Wednesday, received the support of 212 lawmakers with none opposing it. There were, however, 24 parliamentarians who opted not to vote altogether.

Since the first draft was filed with the National Assembly in 2005, no major progress has been made. Similar bills were scrapped during previous parliaments, as liberal lawmakers have shied away from the issue of the North's human rights out of concern that it could strain inter-Korean relations.

Among other things, the bill calls for a concerted effort to improve the North's human rights situation, such as setting up a foundation tasked with collecting information about the North's human rights situation and maintaining relevant archives.

Pyongyang is accused of committing various serious human rights abuses, ranging from holding hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in concentration camps to torture and public executions. The country, however, flatly denies the accusations as a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.

Earlier on Wednesday, parliament also passed a long-stalled anti-terrorism bill after opposition lawmakers temporarily walked out of the National Assembly chamber in protest.

The government-backed bill, which bypassed the normal process and was taken to the floor by the assembly speaker, passed by 156-1 with zero abstentions.

The ruling Saenuri Party controls 157 seats in the 293-member National Assembly, compared to 107 seats held by the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea.

Since the first draft bill was filed with the National Assembly in November 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, no headway was made until now.

The bill was scrapped every time during previous parliaments due to concern over breaches of privacy such as allowing the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea's top spy agency, to collect personal data on anyone suspected of posing a threat to national security.

Under the passed bill, an anti-terrorism center will be set up under the Prime Minister's Office, but the NIS will have the power to gather the relevant information on possible terrorists.

Also, those convicted of organizing terrorist groups will face the maximum penalty of a death sentence and those helping the groups will be sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to the bill.

The bill stipulates that financial authorities are authorized to halt and restrict the financial transactions of anyone suspected to have financed terrorist activities both at home and abroad.

The bill has recently gained new momentum following North Korea's nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.

President Park Geun-hye repeatedly expressed concerns on possible terror attacks, urging bipartisan cooperation for the endorsement of the bill meant to better protect the lives of South Koreans.

The Seoul government welcomed the passage, saying that it will beef up cooperation with the international community to better cope with terrorist threats.