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Seoul’s North Korea human rights law at standstill for 5 years

Ruling liberal bloc shows no urgency in dealing with stalemate, watching Pyongyang's face amid stalled peace talks

South Korea’s North Korea Human Rights Act remains of little real consequence five years after its enactment, with the ruling liberal bloc showing no particular urgency in dealing with human rights violations in the North amid stalled peace talks.

On Wednesday, the law marked its fifth anniversary since it was enacted on March 3, 2016, more than a decade after similar laws took effect in the US and Japan in the early 2000s.

But little progress has been made in carrying out the concrete steps stipulated under the law, more notably since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in administration in 2017 that has largely left the human rights issues on the sidelines of its engagement policy with the North.
North Korean people watch fireworks display to celebrate the New Year at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Jan. 1. (AP-Yonhap)
North Korean people watch fireworks display to celebrate the New Year at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Jan. 1. (AP-Yonhap)

The government has not named a new special envoy for human rights in North Korea for years even though the inaugural ambassador Lee Jung-hoon’s term ended in 2017. The post, in charge of coordinating international efforts, is expected to have a greater importance when a US counterpart is soon to be appointed.

The launch of the North Korea Human Rights Foundation that will be tasked with investigating the state of human rights in the North and developing related policy ideas has also been delayed as rival parties have failed to narrow differences in appointing board members.

The ruling and opposition parties are required to recommend five candidates each for the 12-member board committee, along with two members backed by the Unification Ministry. But the ruling Democratic Party of Korea that had opposed the law’s enactment from the beginning has been lukewarm on the whole process.

Over the years of standstill, the Unification Ministry has also made little effort in expediting related talks, passing the ball to the sharply divided National Assembly.

“Since the launch of the Moon Jae-in government, the law has almost become a dead letter,” said Rep. Tae Yong-ho of the main opposition People Power Party, a former North Korean diplomat, during a parliamentary forum Tuesday.

“The South’s ignoring of the universal issue of human rights is not befitting its global status and role.”

The conservative party last month recommended its own candidates again for the board members, renewing its offensive on the ruling bloc in fulfilling mandates to enforce the law.

Experts also criticized the liberal government’s tepid stance on the issue now that President Joe Biden of the US is highly likely to call for Seoul to come up with a more concrete road map to improve human rights in the North.

“In South Korea, North Korea’s human rights issues have long been considered from a very political perspective,” said Ahn Byong-jin, professor at the Global Academy for Future Civilizations at Kyung Hee University.

“The liberal bloc has perceived the issue as a politically motivated attack from the conservatives, while the conservative bloc has used it as an instrument to up the ante against the liberals.”

Ahn warned against politicizing the universal issue of human rights, especially in working with the new liberal US government that is putting renewed emphasis on democracy and human rights issues on its foreign affairs policy, including its North Korea strategy that is currently under a thorough review.

“It is a complicated and tricky issue but that’s why the issue should be handled on firm principles,” he added.

According to a UN report released last month, political prisoner camps still exist and crimes against humanity continue in the North – including murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution on political grounds and enforced disappearances.

By Lee Ji-yoon (