South Koreans divided on North Korean human rights bill
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South Koreans divided on North Korean human rights bill

The recent debate in South Korea’s National Assembly over competing bills dealing with North Korean human rights reveals that there is a large gulf between conservatives and progressives on the issue.

The conservative Grand National Party, which has a majority in the assembly, is pushing legislation that would aid groups, including those staffed by North Korean defectors, in promoting human rights north of the DMZ.  It would also set up a foundation for North Korean human rights.

That is currently handled by the South Korean National Human Rights Commission.  However, the commission refused to consider North Korean human rights issues during most of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, finally dealing with it in late 2006.  That raises the potential that the commission could once again put North Korean issues to the side if progressives win next year’s legislative and presidential elections.

The main opposition Democratic Party and its allies in the legislature are divided about the issue of North Korean human rights.  Many were student protesters against dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s and consistency would demand that they also stand against the dictatorship in Pyongyang as similarly illegitimate.  However, there is a train of thought on Korea’s left, stated openly by the minor Democratic Labor Party but also in the back of the minds of more mainstream progressives, that the Kim Jong-il regime may be at least as legitimate as the government in Seoul as a representative of the Korean people on the theory that it has adhered more greatly to independence after the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 while Seoul has been overly reliant on the United States.

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Would you trust this man with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid? (AP file photo)

That difference in view over the legitimacy of the government in Pyongyang goes to the heart of the debate over North Korean human rights, as evidenced by the competing bills:

The GNP and DP bills are as different as oil and water. The GNP attaches a number of conditions to humanitarian aid for North Koreans, including its transmission, distribution, and monitoring according to international standards and restrictions on use for other purposes, including military use. The bill codifies into legislation the rationales offered by the government to date in suspending rice aid to North Korea.

In contrast, the DP legislation stipulates unconditional humanitarian aid. No separate demands are made for transparency in its distribution, and the bill includes specific duties related to humanitarian aid, including assistance with food, fertilizer, medicine, machinery, medical equipment, and education.

Conservatives see the Kim Jong-il regime as the cause of the North Korean people’s suffering.  The believe Pyongyang cannot be trusted to get any humanitarian aid to those who need it and will instead use it to support its military and otherwise prolong the very system that is causing the people’s suffering.  In that view, unrestricted aid primarily serves to prevent the enactment of reforms that North Korea needs to improve the lives of its people and close the economic gap between it and South Korea.

Progressives are more likely to give Pyongyang the benefit of the doubt.  While most acknowledge that the North Korean system is demonstrably inferior to its southern counterpart, they believe that  much of the North Korean people’s suffering is due to an ongoing cold war mentality which forces Pyongyang to shift resources to its military.  To that end, any attempt to induce Pyongyang to reform simply questions the legitimacy of the Kim regime, reinforces the cold war mentality, and necessarily increases tensions between the Koreas.

After the North Korean attacks on the warship Cheonan and Yeonpyeong island last year, it is unlikely that the two sides will be able to find common ground on North Korean human rights this session.