South Korean National Assembly passes human rights bill. Finally.

Last month, I leveled some bitter criticism at South Korea’s opposition Minju Party for blocking North Korean human rights legislation (ironically enough, “Minju” means “democracy”). This week, after an eleven-year battle, the opposition finally gave up its obstructionism, yielded to the tides of morality and history, and allowed the bill to pass the National Assembly. The final vote for 212 for and 24 abstentions (and none against?).

Belated as it was, this victory gives us some reasons to rejoice. First, it’s a hopeful sign that some in the Minju Party are breaking with their tradition of anti-anti-North Korean willful blindness to the horrors in the North. This is fresh evidence that South Korea’s political realignment on North Korea policy goes on.

Second, we finally get to see what the bill does in enough detail to see that it does some useful things, which I’ll discuss in ascending order of importance. It creates committees and commissions studies to keep human rights issues in the government’s policy and plans. As with the American analog to the South Korean bill, it is sometimes necessary to force diplomats not to forget such things. When it becomes law, the bill will also require Seoul “to seek human rights talks with North Korea.”

There will be needed reforms to humanitarian aid programs, prioritizing “children and pregnant women as being the main recipients of government humanitarian aid,” and mandating that aid “should be monitored for transparency in accordance with international standards.” This reflects concerns that, as Yonhap puts it, “past government food assistance ended up in the hands of the North Korean military and the ruling elites instead of helping ordinary people.”

Then there is the weighty question of accountability, which has been much on the mind of Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman and Justice Michael Kirby. One of the bill’s more controversial provisions was its creation of an archive of human rights abuses in North Korea. The opposition objected to the prosecutorial implications of housing this database in the Justice Ministry and wanted it kept in the Unification Ministry. In the end, the ruling Saenuri Party mostly got its way — the Unification Ministry will collect, archive, publish the information, but will also share it with the Justice Ministry.

The goal of establishing the human rights archive, inspired by the post-war German model, is to monitor and document the crimes of the North Korean dictatorship. It is vital to note that no such archive or record has ever existed in South Korea. [Human Rights Foundation]

The bill’s most consequential provisions direct a new human rights archive to collect and publish “information about human rights in North Korea,” to Korean audiences on both sides of the DMZ. That pleases some of us …

“We in the Global Coalition are delighted that the South Korean government will—for the first time ever—finance the defector organizations that send films, e-books, radio broadcasts, and educational materials to the North Korean people.”

The North Korean Human Rights Act also establishes a public campaign to raise awareness about North Korea’s human rights violations and takes steps to ensure that South Korean humanitarian aid is not misused by the Kim regime. The goal of establishing the human rights archive, inspired by the post-war German model, is to monitor and document the crimes of the North Korean dictatorship. It is vital to note that no such archive or record has ever existed in South Korea. [Human Rights Foundation]

… and makes other people deeply uncomfortable.

Some critics say the foundation may assist civic groups that send leaflets or make radio broadcasts to North Korea to provide information to people about their authoritarian homeland. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

As if that’s a bad thing. As if North Korea doesn’t have extensive propaganda and influence operations of its own in South Korea. It’s not like the North Koreans have a legitimate complaint here, but legitimacy has never been an object for Pyongyang. Its state media says that enactment of the bill into law will result in “miserable ruin.”

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Of the many heroes in this story, none stands greater than former political prisoner, lawmaker, and Governor of Kyonggi Province Kim Moon-soo, whom I profiled here and here during the Paleozoic era of this blog. Kim sponsored the original form of this legislation back in 2005, near the height of the Sunshine Policy’s popularity.

“While its passage is long overdue, the country can now defect (sic: deflect?) international criticism for not approving a North Korean human rights law,” said Kim Moon-soo, who first submitted the law 11 years ago. “People inside the North will know about the law’s enactment and it will put considerable pressure on the political elite in Pyongyang.” [Yonhap]

One day, Governor Kim will make a fine President of a united Korea. Let’s also remember the hard work of Hwang Woo-yea, who fought for years to get this bill through the National Assembly.

Other proponents, including Kim Seong-min of Free North Korea radio and Park Sang-hak of Fighters for a Free North Korea, both refugees from North Korea who became dissidents in exile — and at least one of them, the target of an assassination attempt by North Korean agents — were more skeptical. Understandably, both complained about the long delay in the bill’s passage.

Kim Seong-min, head of Free North Korea Radio, based in Seoul, said it took too long for the bill to be passed, especially in light of the suffering endured by North Koreans all these years. The defector-turned-activist, who came to the South in 1999, voiced hope that the new law would give civic groups in the South championing North Korean human rights “big momentum” to speed their work and help get outside information into the North. [….]

Others like Park Sang-hak, head of a leading civic group that flies anti-North leaflets across the border, criticized the bill for having a clause that calls for improvement in inter-Korea relations. “I don’t see why the bill encourages dialogue with an evil-natured regime,” said the activist. [Yonhap]

Another reason to rejoice is that the hard work of NGOs like the Human Rights Foundation, among many others, paid off. Thor Halvorssen, Garry Kasparov, and the HRF had joined the push for the bill and were understandably pleased by its passage.

Last September, the Global Coalition visited Seoul to campaign for the Act and hosted a widely-publicized press conference that included Garry Kasparov, Serbian democracy advocate Srdja Popovic, North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, and South Korean lawyer Kim Tae-hoon. Other members of the Global Coalition include Malaysia’s opposition leader Nurul Izzah Anwar, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond, North Korean defector Jung Gwang-il, Peru’s former president Alejandro Toledo, Romania’s former president Emil Constantinescu, and Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yushchenko.

South Korea’s failure to pass the bill had become a global embarrassment.

“The Republic of Korea has taken its head out of the sand and has finally confronted the cruelty and horror of the North Korean dictatorship. It is a victory for all who support human rights and human dignity,” said HRF chairman Garry Kasparov. [Human Rights Foundation]

Oh, and this, via HRF:

Its North Korea program has resulted in multiple threats of violence emanating from the North Korean government including threats of assassination, bodily harm, and missile attacks on HRF staff, members, and associates. [Human Rights Foundation]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list … oh, never mind. Congratulations to all who fought for this soon-to-be law, and please donate your old flash drive to Flash Drives for Freedom.

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