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Crunch Time for NK Human Rights Act

Koo Jun Hoe  |  2014-02-04 12:22
Many eyes are now on February's provisional session of the South Korean National Assembly and, more specifically, the way it handles the controversial North Korean Human Rights Act. The act has long been a point of contention between South Koreas two main political parties, and therefore, despite both party heads promising to tackle it head on, any progress is sure to come amidst formidable opposition. 

The deputy floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, Yoon Sang Hyun announced on January 22nd that the act would be passed by the assembly during February.  Simultaneously, the opposition Democratic Party took a somewhat more subdued stance, merely affirming that the legislation is up for consideration.

The Saenuri Party version of the act calls for the appointment of a special envoy on North Korean Human Rights, as well as the establishment of a dedicated foundation and documents archive. The party will seek to capitalize on current political dominance to realize the passage of the act in this provisional session. 

However, the Democratic Party continues to oppose to the version of the act promoted by the ruling party on the grounds that it could aggravate the North, and has expressed doubts over its effectiveness in some areas. Specific objections concern stipulations providing for financial aid to human rights groups floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the DMZ.

Alternative legislation drafted by the Democratic Party would ensure the distribution of humanitarian aid to the North and the establishment of a humanitarian advisory committee affiliated with the Ministry of Unification, but not financial aid to controversial human rights groups. Such a law would only serve to prop up the regime, the Saenuri Party counters.

With regional elections approaching in June, the Democratic Party is eager to shed the image, perpetuated by the conservative camp, that it is weak on national security. Giving further hope to supporters of the proposed act is that the Democrats urgently need to embrace political moderates and expand the reach of the party. Party support is at an all-time low, and a new party led by Ahn Cheol Soo presents a credible threat. If the Ahn-led group is to be co-opted, concessions will be needed.
The Democratic Party is seeking to resurrect the basic principle of engagement with North Korea in the form of Sunshine Policy 2.0, but concerns within the party over a perceived shift to the right by the ruling elite can only mean a thorny road ahead for the legislative agenda.

Professor Chae Song Ho of Chung-ang University told Daily NK on the 3rd, The two sides have taken very different positions, so it's going to be difficult to find agreement. We don't even know if the ruling party can find a compromise by which to get symbolic measures through.  This will not be a simple task.
If there is to be a shift in the fundamental position of the Democratic Party then there needs to be a great deal of discussion within the party itself, he went on. However, Party leaders have not shown persuasive leadership, nor have they clarified a party platform. There has not been a free vote on the matter, either. Saying that the law would be passed was a hasty move on their part.
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