Human Rights Korean History

The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights Holds a Discussion of its Archives

NKDB Discussion of its Archives_500

On August 26, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) held a discussion about its Archives of North Korean human rights violations. The three-hour event took place at the Korean Bar Association, located near the Seocho subway station in southern Seoul.

NKDB has catalogued thousands of incidents from thousands of individuals, and is constantly interviewing recent defectors. In addition, they have a consultation and support program for North Koreans and also for South Koreans who spent time against their will in North Korea, such as abductees who later escaped. Also, this year they started a short daily radio program, which I will discuss below.

After several people gave welcoming remarks, the former director of NKDB, 윤여상, now at Johns Hopkins University, made a presentation, and then eight panelists and the moderator, a Yonsei University law professor, weighed in.

I sat next to a friend who works at NKDB, and she very kindly took some notes in English to summarize key points of some of the speakers. The following is based on those notes. As it happened, the viewpoints below lean toward government operation of the/an Archives, but other speakers (not represented in the notes) supported it being a private effort. She said it was quite interesting that, for the most part, representatives of various government bodies said their body should be in charge of the Archives, while speakers from NGOs said it should stay in the private sector.

조영국 (국가인권위원회 / National Human Rights Commission of Korea)
– in line with the function of the archives, it should be operated by the government
– in Germany it was operated by law enforcement
– now in Korea it’s undertaken by an NGO – the help of the government is desperately needed

홍관표 (법무부 / Ministry of Justice)
– if the purpose of the archives is to punish perpetrators, then it should be operated by the government
– if a “judicial” organization isn’t responsible now for collecting evidence, it won’t be able to be used later when judging perpetrators (my comment: really? I suppose it depends how it’s done, but surely there must be a way)
– if unification occurs, this is going to be a major issue

김동성 (한나라당 국회의원 / 국회인권포럼책임연구위원 / Member of National Assembly, Grand National Party)
– three aspects: prevention of abuses now, punishment of perpetrators after unification, and the recording of history

김윤태 (북한민주회네트워크 사무총장 / Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights)
– we should focus on prevention, ie, we need to consider the immediate effect the Archives can have
my comment: The idea here is that if perpetrators and potential perpetrators realize they may be held accountable in the future, they may think twice before proceeding. To the extent such warnings actually penetrate and permeate into North Korean society (or at least to the regime and those in positions of authority), this argument is made much stronger. But right now, I think it’s not yet a very strong argument, at least for those at lower levels of the ladder, eg, a guard beating a prisoner. The only current ways to get this message in are through radio and balloon-delivered leaflets. Regarding the former, a great, new program that NKDB is undertaking is a 10-minute radio program five days a week that discusses human rights (in a North Korean context, of course) and is broadcast into NK with the help of Open Radio for North Korea (click 열린북한방송 then click 북한인권이야기 – especially the first broadcast: (Korean)).  Regarding messages delivered via balloon — does anyone know if this is a (common) subject addressed in the leaflets by any of the groups that send them?

이승용 (좋은 벗들 사무국장 / Good Friends)
– agrees prevention tool is needed, but considering the present situation, the prevention effect won’t work now, and we should instead focus on recording the violations
– for credibility, the government should operate the Archive
– the important thing is the independence of the organization (my comment: not sure how this point and the one above work together)
– the “clearance of history” (see below) will be done based on the records of the Archives
– standards for pardons and punishments should be established

other loose strands of thought:
– 과거청산 – the liquidation/clearance/pardoning of the past – this theme came up several times
– if operated by the government, which agency(ies)? the Ministry of Unification? Justice? the National Human Rights Commission? the national police / military intelligence?
– the change of governments in early 2008 also was mentioned more than once – one commentator wondered why the new Lee Myung-bak government has not set up an official Archives yet
– one of the most common themes, of course, was comparisons to and contrasts with East & West Germany (I was going crazy for a couple minutes trying to figure out what 동독 was, since it wasn’t in my dictionary, but, duh, it turns out that’s what you call 동독일, ie, East Germany)

They had a great array of speakers, but they didn’t seem to promote it very well, so not many people knew about the event and few people attended. There is a major conference on North Korean Human Rights September 24-25 at the Seoul Press Center; perhaps if there was some way to have held the discussion as a panel there, it would have reached a much larger audience.

Though maybe they can still make up for it. I haven’t heard anything definite, but it sounds like NKDB is planning to hold a similar discussion in Washington, D.C., sometime in the next few to several weeks.