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Minbyun efforts may be more harm than help for defector group

Lee Sang Yong  |  2016-06-28 17:13

A group known as Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) is stirring controversy as it strives to put 12 former North Korean restaurant employees who escaped from China on the stand in court to grill them over whether they defected of their volition or were abducted by the South Korean government. Critics of the group have noted that the efforts of Minbyun do more to jeopardize the rights of the defectors than protect them as it claims.

Observers have noted that pushing the defectors to testify on whether they were abducted by South Koreas National Intelligence Service [as asserted by Pyongyang] would put the lives of the defectors and their families in danger. If the defectors state that they left of their own will, it would undoubtedly lead to severe repercussions for their remaining family members in the North. If they instead choose to testify that they unwillingly came to the South in order to protect their family members, they place themselves at risk of repatriation to the North. 

These defectors therefore face a catch-22 situation if they are made to testify, as there does not exist an outcome in which either themselves or their families will not face retribution from the North Korean authorities. In full knowledge of this, Minbyun continues to push for a court testimony under the guise of protecting their human rights. It is notable that a historical analysis of this lawyers group shows that it has not previously issued a single public statement advocating for North Korean human rights. 

However, Minbyun has in the past stated that the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on North Korea should not be used as a political tool to pressure North Korea and opposed Seouls North Korean Human Rights Act saying, From a legal perspective, the assertion that hostile actions toward North Korea will help improve human rights is an error in logic, and unacceptable. 

 The 20 to 30 lawyers within the group with staunch pro-North Korean tendencies have frequently spoken in support of the North on issues such as the National Security Law and other cases, Yoo Dong Youl, the head of the Korean Institute of Liberal Democracy said. He pointed out that Minbyun must root out the small number of lawyers with pro-Pyongyang proclivities in order to progress as a force for good that places importance on human rights as a universal value. 

Kang Cheol Hwan, president of the North Korea Strategy Center, also raised questions about Minbyuns true motive behind their recent push. Seeing as Minbyun has never once come out in support of North Korean human rights until now, its claim that it is pressuring the defectors to testify for the sake of their own rights is highly suspicious, to say the least Kang said.

Since the Kim Dae Jung administration, South Korea has prohibited its own government agencies from holding news conferences with North Korean defectors due to the harm that is likely to be inflicted upon their family members and associates residing in the North, Kang explained. Minbyun is blatantly ignoring this precedent and demanding that the defectors stand in court and explain the details of how they escaped. This shows a complete disregard for their rights and should be criticized."

Kang also pointed out that this incident has highlighted deep-seated issues present within South Korean politics. Some lawmakers from the opposition bloc have either sympathized with the Minbyun drive or deliberately kept their stance unclear, he said, adding, This is also a significant issue. Tacit support and even silence from South Korean lawmakers further encourages Minbyuns reckless activities."

Although this incident is bringing serious issues within South Korean politics into the spotlight, Kang said it has also created an opportunity to examine the pro-North Korean forces that exist within the South and more proactively draw out change through policies that will better protect the North Korean people.

There is also the possibility that some of our laws designed to protect the safety of our own people may actually end up violating the human rights of North Koreans. So we need to carefully analyze our own measures to ensure such possibilities are avoided, he noted.

*Translated by Jiyeon Lee
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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