South Korean human rights groups eager for launch of new foundation

Kim Ji Seung  |  2018-01-24 15:05
Although the United Nations General Assembly has adopted the Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK for the 13th year in a row, non-governmental organizations in South Korea that work for the promotion of human rights abuses are finding little to celebrate. While the international community condemns the regime for its rights abuses, the launch of South Koreas NK Human Rights Foundation has been held up by political bickering.     

The NK Human Rights Foundation - which aims to serve as a central hub in supporting research into North Korean human rights, investigations, and civic groups - has not yet held its opening ceremony. In light of these difficult circumstances, Daily NK has sought to reach out to active members of the human rights NGO community here in South Korea to understand their perspectives. The organizations contacted include Now Action & Unity for NK Human Rights (NAUH), North Korea Database Center (NKDB), and Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG).  

A number of non-governmental human rights organizations in South Korea recently gathered for a conference and expressed the hope that the launch of the NK Human Rights Foundation will not be subject to political influence. 

The North Korean Human Rights law was passed [in South Koreas National Assembly], but the foundation has yet to be launched, said Lim Soon-hui, head of the North Korea Database Center (NKDB). This situation is revealing of South Koreas level of interest in human rights. As we enter the year, the activity of rights organizations has been shrinking. We need more support for the improvement of North Korean human rights, but in reality, we are falling short on getting that done.   
Seo Jae Pyeong, the Secretary General for the Association of North Korean Defectors, agreed with the assessment. He said, Our organization is undertaking a diverse range of activities, including helping defectors settle in South Korea and addressing human rights problems in the North. Its unfortunate that we are having trouble gaining interest. The delayed launch of the NK Human Rights Foundation and other problems are pushing these important issues to the backburner.   

The international situation, however, stands in stark contrast. One person with experience in human rights advocacy in both South Korea and abroad is Ji Seong Ho, the president of Now Action & Unity for NK Human Rights (NAUH). He has previously organized protests in China countering the forced repatriation of defectors, and delivered an address at the human rights forum. In order to spread awareness about human rights abuses in North Korea far and wide, NAUH created a play and performed it at US universities and government institutions. 

Asked about the international interest in supporting this kind of activity, NAUH President Ji said, Stories like the North Korean soldiers defection across the Joint Security Area at the North-South border and the group defection of North Korean restaurant workers in China have caused more people to become interested in activities focused on improving North Korean human rights.  

If the NK Human Rights Foundation had been launched by now, we would be able to more proactively conduct these activities. The fact that we cant is really unfortunate. We expect that the National Assembly or the government [the Moon administration] will take steps to help facilitate the launch, President Ji continued.

Although the representatives agreed that the domestic political situation is not ideal in regards to their efforts, they nonetheless continue to pursue it with determination. The organizations are busy recording and releasing reports regarding those who are responsible for human rights violations and nuclear weapons development. These reports have helped to stimulate international attention. Ever since the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea was released in 2014, attention has pointed toward the need to investigate those responsible for abuses and publish objective reports on the matter.  

In scenarios where the Kim Jong Un regime collapses or there is a coup, the chance exists that internal North Korean records providing evidence on those responsible could be destroyed. For this reason, it is critical that external and objective reports be produced. 

Transitional Justice Working Group President Lee Young Hwan said, We are simultaneously offering a warning to North Korean human rights violators and also relaying a hopeful message to South Koreans that a better world will come someday. In conducting the research to compose its latest report released in June, the organization interviewed 375 refugees, using their personal insights to document the nature and locations of the violations.  

Evidence includes documents from the Ministry of State Security and the Korean Peoples Army, testimony about places where people have been killed, and the locations of grave sites. If there is a sudden change, this information will help us manage the situation. It will take a long time for the international community and South Korea to acquire the relevant evidentiary documents. We need to protect these documents and prevent their destruction in any contingency, so we need advanced knowledge of their location, Lee continued.

As of now, there are 47 recorded grave sites, and 330 locations for reported killings. The graves associated with these killings tend to be located close to the site of the murders. The June report includes all of this information. The story was covered internationally in 22 languages by over 100 outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN. This is an indicator of the large amount of interest abroad in these issues. 

NKDB has also been documenting human rights violations for over ten years. This year, however, they faced significant challenges in continuing their research. There have been operational problems and stoppages stemming from difficulties in maintaining contracts and acquiring funds. The NK Human Rights Foundation is legally directed to provide this exact type of support to NGOs like NKDB. 

NKDB Head Lim Soon Hee said, There is some work that can be managed by civic groups, and some work that the government can do. Right now, the civic groups are being excluded. NGOs all face difficulties in ensuring the continuous acquisition of funding, so it would be beneficial if the government would support these kinds of efforts. 

The need to strengthen cooperation to advance towards the bottom line

In order to raise awareness and interest in the improvement of North Korean human rights, NGOs should work together, the experts agreed. Transitional Justice Working Group President Lee said, The NGOs have to submit a report in 2018 in preparation for the third North Korea Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to be held in 2019. To send a severe message to North Korea, we need to emphatically raise the most important problems at the table. The NGOs should collaborate in pursuit of this.   

Recently, Kim Jong Un has been conducting things in secret, including unofficial executions, in order to make it seem as if the human rights situation in North Korea is improving. During such times, it is more important than ever to band together and pressure the North, Lee continued.

NKDBs Lim Soon Hee added, We need to tighten the network of NGOs and defectors in 2018. Only by doing so can we reach out to more people. Domestic NGOs are having trouble these days, so we need to come together to solve the common problems that we are all facing. The most important thing is to constantly improve our competencies and capabilities.   
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