Seoul's Human Rights Challenge for the North
|Our Correspondent||Jun 26, 2011|
South Korean government appears about to push tensions further with North Korea,
with South Korea’s National Assembly having scheduled a vote Monday on
legislation concerning North Korean human rights.
North, threatening to respond ‘mercilessly” if the bill passes, has
considerably upped its rhetoric as the measure has moved forward. Asia News Network quoted the North’s party newspaper
Rodong Sinmun as describing the bill as
a “blatant declaration by the Lee Myung-bak clique that it legally
denies our ideology, system and state and its heinous challenge to the dignity”
of Pyongyang’s leadership.
proposed legislation would create an independent body to investigate and
catalogue North Korean human rights and provide financial assistance to South
Korean groups working to improve the dismal condition of human rights in the
North, which has long been accused of torturing thousands of political
prisoners, holding public executions and a long laundry list of other human
measure was first introduced in 2005 but was scrapped by the Uni Party, the then-ruling
party of Roh Moo-hyun, the president at the time, who at that point was still
seeking inter-Korean reconciliation.
late as April, South Korean media were still describing the bill as being mired
in the National Assembly. However, it was resuscitated, partly under pressure
from the growing population of North Korean defectors in South Korea, now
numbering more than 20,000 according to the Family Care Foundation, has been
pushing for the bill’s passage.
bills have been passed by the US Congress, which allowed North Korean defectors
to settle in the US, and by the Japanese Diet, still rankled over Pyongyang’s
kidnapping of Japanese citizens and spiriting them to North Korea and a list of
revived bill passed the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee early
last year and now awaits tomorrow’s final vote. If passed, the measure would be regarded as a
formal rebuke to the North Korean regime, implying that the South feels the
need to take a more active role in protecting North Koreans from their own
bill is the latest episode in the long-running interplay between those in the
South who advocate doing everything to condemn the North regime outright
against others who argue for drawing it into a dialogue.
the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak almost immediately
shelved former President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy on Lee’s election in
2008 and adopted a harder line, a sizeable minority prefer not to provoke the
North. Others feel a moral compulsion to pressure the North to reform.
Korea likes to be both bully and victim. Against considerable evidence to the
contrary, Kim Jong-il’s regime recently proclaimed the land the second happiest
country on earth behind China (which officially recorded at least 124,000
violent incidents in 2008 involving more than 15 people each) and likes to
threaten nuclear attacks while collecting food donations from the international
community. It depicts itself as ruggedly strong, but has easily hurt feelings.
of the reason for the North’s displeasure with this bill is the gradually
appearing evidence that North Koreans are growing more aware of the realities
of life in the South, and of the attendant contrast with their own country.
Citizens of North Korea are generally believed to be aware of the large wealth
disparity between the two countries. The anti-North website Daily NK reported
last week that the increase in mobile phone use is making it easier for
information on the spread of South Korean popular culture in North Korea to
move into the isolated country, in which radios are set so that they can
receive only the government propaganda channel.
the political level, signs of worsening relations abound. Tensions on the
peninsula have been on low boil since the March 2010 sinking of the South
Korean gunboat Cheonan, which was sunk in the Yellow Sea, by all appearances by
a North Korean torpedo, though Pyongyang has denied involvement. The Kim regime
recently said it would no longer speak directly to the South Korean government
and the six-party talks on nuclear disarmament are dormant.
an indication of Southern jitters, on June 17 South Korean soldiers fired on an
Asiana Airlines passenger plane they mistook for a North Korean fighter. The
plane was out of range so no damage was done, but the incident speaks to the
general jumpiness within the South Korean military, which was embarrassed after
being slow to respond to North Korea’s November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong
Island. After that attack, President Lee vowed to turn Yeonpyeong and the other
four Yellow Sea islands into “fortresses” that could withstand North Korean
government is now carrying out that promise.
The Northwest Islands Defense Command was recently established on
Baeknyeong Island to bolster the South’s presence and allow the military to be
more able to respond to a possible North Korean attack. Four AH-1S Cobra attack
helicopters will be stationed within the command along with advanced
artillery-detecting radar and air-to-ground missiles.
plan was also announced earlier this month by the South Korean government to
spend KRW910 billion (US$843.5 million) to improve services and infrastructure
on the Yellow Sea islands to improve life for island residents. Two civilians
and two marines were killed Yeonpyeong in November.
the bill on North Korean human rights passes in South Korea’s National
Assembly, it would signal South Korea turning further away from engagement with
the North. That would in turn signal the latest dip in deteriorating
North-South relations that have yet to hit bottom.
Borowiec is a freelance journalist living in South Korea.