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Move on Human Rights Inspires Modest Hope

Cho Jong Ik  |  2014-01-15 01:29

The leader of South Koreas embattled Democratic Party (DP), Kim Han Gil yesterday made official reference to addressing the North Korean human rights problem, something the Democratic Party had largely sought to avoid discussing in the past. The move is set to reignite domestic debate regarding the stalled North Korean Human Rights Act and focus attention on the possibility of agreement on North Korean human rights during Februarys National Assembly session.

Kim told a New Year press conference, The Democratic Party, which holds democracy and human rights as its supreme values, is confronting the North Korean human rights issue. Preparations for a North Korean Human Rights and Livelihoods Act to improve the human rights and livelihoods of North Koreans will take place at the Party level.

This isn't the first time that elements within the DP have worked on the issue of North Korean human rights, though interest has hitherto stemmed from lower in the ranks. In November 2012, DP lawmaker Shim Jae Kwon introduced a bill to enhance the human rights of the North Korean people, and in July last year fellow party member Yoon Hu Duk put a similar proposal before the National Assembly. The party leadership appears set to engage with these two previous offerings prior to dialogue with the Saenuri Party.

Since the original Saenuri Party-led North Korean Human Rights Act first appeared in 2005, the DP has objected to the passage of any law on the issue, fearing that passing it might anger the North and set back bilateral efforts to resolve the division of the Korean Peninsula at the governmental level. As a result, the act fell by the wayside during both the 18th and 19th National Assembly cycles.

There are multiple interpretations as to why the DP could have decided to engage with the subject of North Korean human rights at this time.

There are some who wonder whether the execution of Jang Song Taek forced the partys hand, and thereafter it decided to approach the issue head on. However, a more likely trigger is the desire of the party to avoid being labeled pro-North in the run up to this years regional elections. The party was criticized in recent years for aiding the entry of pro-North figures into the legislative arena due to its progressive alliance approach to both regional elections in 2010 and the general election in 2012.

Additionally, this year the core DP vote is under serious threat from computer virus software mogul-turned independent lawmaker Ahn Cheol Soo, who is to offer a stern challenge to all those on the left of Korean politics. Currently polling considerably below Ahns formative faction, the DP appears keen to redefine itself and regain its voter base, and sees the North Korean human rights issue as one possible venue for swift gains.

Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae Kyung told Daily NK today, The North Korean human rights issue is expanding, and [the DP] would have been backed into a corner if they'd rejected the issue any more. We'll have to see how discussions proceed from here, but you can't say theres no chance of it passing.

Although Ha and others on the conservative right are cautiously optimistic about the DPs amended stance, there are still major differences in the positions of the two on the issue of North Korean human rights. In particular, the DP wishes to see any act offer specific support for humanitarian and development assistance to North Korea, whereas the Saenuri Party focus is on the human rights of the North Korean people and support for groups that aim to realize on-the-ground human rights improvements. 

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