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View more articles by Teodora Gyupchanova
Teodora Gyupchanova is Director of International Communications at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) in Seoul.
In the wake of recent reporting from the UN on the dire human rights conditions in North Korea, and Pyongyang’s rejection of much-needed food aid, many might have been reminded of the status of the implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA), signed into law by the South Korean government in September 2016.
When the NKHRA was passed in the National Assembly it was considered a great achievement, given that the first draft of the bill was proposed to the South Korean parliament in 2005.
After 11 years of back and forth between ruling and opposition parties at the National Assembly, the NKHRA was adopted during the final months of the Park Geun-hye administration.
South Korea’s adoption of a bill on human rights in North Korea came more than a decade after the U.S. and Japanese governments implemented such legislation in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Moreover, the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, as the U.S. legislation is often called, was reauthorized in 2008 and most recently in July 2018.
The adoption of the South Korean NKHRA was supported mostly by civil society organizations working on the investigation of the human rights situation in the DPRK and by North Korean defector activists.
The purpose of the Act as stipulated in its first article is to “contribute to the protection and improvement of the human rights of North Koreans by pursuing the right to liberty and right to life prescribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions on human rights.”
The legislation involves provisions tasking the ROK government with investigating the human rights situation in the DPRK and ensuring that humanitarian aid delivered to North Korea is distributed with the goal of promoting the human rights of North Korean citizens.
Until that moment, any structured activities aimed at studying the occurrence of human rights violations in the DPRK was conducted by quasi-governmental Korea Institute for National Unification and civil society organizations such as Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, the Korean Bar Association, etc.
When the NKHRA was passed in the National Assembly it was considered a great achievement
According to the NKHRA, four bodies were to be established in order to ensure the proper implementation of the legislation: 1) North Korean Human Rights Advisory Committee, 2) Center for North Korean Human Rights Records at the Ministry of Unification, 3) North Korean Human Rights Documentation Office and 4) North Korean Human Rights Foundation.
All of the above, with the exception of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation (or the Foundation), have been functional in varying degrees since the end of 2016.
The North Korean Human Rights Advisory Committee constitutes experts who are to provide the Ministry of Unification with advice on methods for the improvement of the human rights situation in the DPRK. The mandate of the Committee members who were initially selected to perform this function expired in January 2019.
The NKHRA requires that the ruling party should recommend half of the members. However, despite the fact that the opposition party has already submitted nominations for four people, the ruling Democratic Party has not made any recommendations, which ultimately stalls the selection of a new Advisory Committee.
The Center for North Korean Human Rights Records (the Center) was established in 2016 shortly after the adoption of NKHRA in accordance with Article 13 of the law.
Hosted by the Ministry of Unification (MOU), the Center is tasked with conducting in-depth research and investigation of the state of human rights in the DPRK, confirming cases of human rights violations perpetrated in North Korea and reporting of its findings.
Apart from its first anniversary report issued in September 2017, which is focused entirely on the operation of the Center and not on findings about human rights violations in North Korea, the MOU has not published other reports exemplifying its investigation work on human rights.
The Korean language website of the Center has a section that collects documents related to the issue of North Korean human rights published mainly by the UN, foreign governments, the South Korean government, and Korea Institute of National Unification.
There is not a single document uploaded in 2018, the year of active diplomatic engagement of the DPRK, and the majority of the files are uploaded after June 7, 2019.
In 2017 the Center’s anniversary report mentions a plan for the development of a Comprehensive Information System on North Korean Human Rights that will enable the MoU to manage and analyze data collected via interviews and surveys with North Korean defectors.
This plan has apparently been achieved as public records show that the company Misoinfo developed such a system for the MOU from August to November 2018.
Article 13 of the NKHRA also provided for the establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Documentation Office (the Documentation Office) within the Ministry of Justice. The office is also known as the North Korean Human Rights Archive.
The main function of the Documentation Office is to safely store the documents it receives every quarter by the Center for North Korean Human Rights Records.
According to the regulations for the management of the Documentation Office, it is expected to keep the records received from the Center for the duration of 10 years. This period can be extended if it is deemed necessary.
As of May 2019, the Documentation Office has received 1124 records related to human rights in the DPRK collected by the Center for North Korean Human Rights Records. In 2018 alone 510 such records were transferred to the Ministry of Justice.
Those records are not comprised entirely of cases of human rights violations but also include documents revealing the overall state of human rights in the DPRK, therefore the number of stored records cannot be automatically equated to the number of documented human rights violations.
It seems that the establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation is in a state of limbo
The structure established by the NKHRA that brought the most controversy since September 2016 is the North Korean Human Rights Foundation.
At the same time this is also the body that created the most hope for civil society organizations, activists and the North Korean defector community in South Korea because, according to Article 10 of NKHRA, the Foundation is to provide support to civil groups engaged in projects aimed at improvement of the human rights situation in the DPRK.
Unfortunately, the Foundation has still not been able to launch its activities, as its official establishment is conditional on the selection of its board members.
In a situation similar to the currently frozen Advisory Committee, two of its board directors have to be recommended by the MoU and the remaining ten – by the National Assembly. Currently the National Assembly has not been able to announce nominations for the Foundation board members.
From the end of 2016 until the end of 2018 several other developments further discouraged civil society organizations expecting the launch of the Foundation.
In June 2018 the MOU closed the office of the Foundation and terminated its rental contract, citing financial losses due to the fact that the structure is not actually operational and that the rent expenses were a waste of governmental funding.
Simultaneously the budget of the Foundation, which was initially set at 10.8 billion KRW (8.9 million USD), was reduced to 800 million KRW ($659,000), a cut of over 90%.
These measures, coupled with the stalemate at the National Assembly regarding recommendations for board directors of the Foundation, have prompted critical remarks both domestically in South Korea and overseas.
It is up to the current administration to consolidate consensus and find the needed compromise
For the past couple of years, civil society organizations in Seoul and prominent North Korean defector activists have been protesting and urging the ROK government to ensure the effective launch of the Foundation.
Additionally, the current chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Young-ae Choi, expressed her position that the Foundation needs to become functional as soon as possible during a parliamentary review of the administration in November 2018.
The international community has also been critical of the current situation. In the U.S. State Department’s most recent Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, published in March 2019, the U.S. government called out Seoul for being slow to establish the North Korean Human Rights Foundation potentially due to lack of political will.
The report further mentions the failure of the ROK government to also fill the post of ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights, which is stipulated by the NKHRA as well. The post has been vacant since September 2017, when the mandate of the previous Ambassador Jung Hoon-lee expired.
Moreover, in a statement issued in June 2019, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomás Ojea Quintana, called for the prompt establishment of the Foundation in order to support civil society organizations that work on developing programs on North Korean human rights.
In a February Chosun Ilbo interview with Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG, the former head of the Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, said that “North Korean human rights should not be a partisan issue” when asked about the current state of the implementation of NKHRA.
The official position of the South Korean government was briefly mentioned in the 2019 Unification White Paper. According to the MoU from August 2016 until the end of 2018 multiple official requests have been submitted to the National Assembly in order to facilitate the selection of board member nominees.
The MOU further states that it is constantly seeking the cooperation of negotiating bodies of each party within the National Assembly in order to launch the Foundation as soon as possible.
Civil society organizations dedicated to investigation, documentation, and advocacy related to human rights in North Korea have lost hope
For now it seems that the establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation is in a state of limbo. The drastic cut in the budget of the Foundation has been a concerning sign that the situation may not be resolved soon.
Meanwhile, civil society organizations dedicated to investigation, documentation, and advocacy related to human rights in North Korea have lost hope that their work will be supported by the Foundation. This proves critical in the current conditions under which funding available for projects related to North Korean human rights has become extremely limited.
It is important to point out that the NKHRA included provisions for the establishment of different bodies with their own corresponding functions in order to ensure that the South Korean government is equipped with an effective and consistent policy on human rights in North Korea.
In the current environment, amidst inefficient legislation, mistrust by civil society and the North Korean defector community, and criticism by international stakeholders, it is up to the current administration to consolidate consensus and find the needed compromise in order to ensure the effective implementation of the NKHRA.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News