South Korea on Tuesday approved measures reducing the maximum period that recent defectors can be interrogated by intelligence services to 90 days, the Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced.
North Korean defectors who arrived in the South must undergo joint interrogation by South Korean authorities before being transferred to the settlement support center known as Hanawon.
The screening process, which involves several ministries but is led by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), can continue for up to 180 days, according to the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act.
Tuesday’s decree will limit the period of interrogation and “provisional protective measures” to a maximum of 90 days after a defector’s arrival in the country.
South Korean intelligence can only extend the period of investigation for up to 30 days after a deliberative process by the Consultative Council on Residents Escaping from North Korea.
“We’d like to support North Korean defectors entering into society at the earliest possible moment and settling down by shortening the period of legal investigation to 90 days,” the unification ministry said in a written statement.
“The Ministry of Unification will continuously make efforts so that North Korean defectors can stably settle and integrate smoothly into our society in cooperation with the relevant ministries and organizations in the future.”
The amendment to the enforcement decree will be implemented later in the month once it receives approval from South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The unification ministry said the purpose of the measure was to “readjust the period of provisional protection and investigation to a realistic level considering the actual average questioning period.”
The change was first proposed in October last year by the MOU.
Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon then submitted the amendment last Thursday, having passing screening by the Ministry of Government Legislation.
The decision was subsequently approved at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.
The administration of former President Lee Myung-bak previously decided to allow an interrogation period of up to 180 days in September 2010, with previous governments having not stipulated how long defectors could remain detained.
The amendment was announced in June that year, following the arrest of two North Korean agents who had entered the country claiming to be escapees and had planned to assassinate high-ranking defector Hwang Jang-yop.
But NIS techniques when interrogating defectors have attracted controversy, with allegations that intelligence services have prevented escapees from access to legal representation or contact with family members.
In 2014 it was revealed that the NIS had, among other things, used forged documents to convict defector Yu Woo-sung on charges of espionage.
The unification ministry on Tuesday said the aim of the amendment was to safeguard “the rights and interests of North Korean defectors by clarifying the interrogation period.”
The total number of defectors in the South reached 31,339 in 2017, statistics released by the Ministry of Unification (MOU) showed, with 1127 North Korean escapees arriving in the South last year
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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