Seoul's Human Rights Challenge for the North

The

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.

The

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.

The

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

rights violations.

The

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.

As

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.

Similar

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

other issues.

The

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

government.

The

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.

Although

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.

North

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.

Part

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.

At

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.

As

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

aggression.

His

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.

A

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.

If

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.

Steven

Borowiec is a freelance journalist living in South Korea.