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The Peninsula

Seoul Releases Critical Report Discussing North Korean Human Rights Abuses

Published April 3, 2023
Author: Robert King

On March 30, the South Korean Ministry of Unification published a 450-page report on human rights abuses in North Korea.  The report was drafted in accordance with the provisions of South Korea’s North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016, which specifies that the Ministry of Unification shall produce an annual report on human rights in the North.  This is the first public report that the Ministry has issued, despite the fact that the legislation was adopted by the National Assembly seven years ago in March 2016 and implemented by a presidential proclamation issued in September of that same year.

Seoul’s North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016

The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016 (Act No.14070) includes a number of specific provisions to be implemented by the government of South Korea to encourage respect for human rights in North Korea.  These provisions include the creation of a human rights master plan which was to be periodically updated, the promotion of human rights dialogue with North Korea, the requirement for transparency in the provision of humanitarian assistance to the North, appointment of an Ambassador at the Foreign Ministry to promote international human rights efforts in the North, the creation of a Human Rights Foundation with broad powers to focus on North Korean human rights, and a number of other provisions.  Presidential Decree No.27476 of September 2016 issued directives for the implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act.

Six weeks after the presidential decree was issued, however, President Park Geun-hye was engulfed in a political scandal that resulted in the National Assembly voting to impeach her and remove her from office on December 9, 2016.  Mass candlelight vigils in Seoul reflected strong public sentiment opposing her remaining in office, and her public approval rating dropped to less than 5 percent.  Her removal from office occurred in March 2017 when the National Assembly’s impeachment resolution was confirmed by the South Korean Supreme Court.

Although Park Geun-hye issued the presidential decree to implement the provisions of the North Korea Human Rights Act before her impeachment, the last six months before she was removed from office involved minimal high-level action on North Korean human rights issues or on other issues as well.  The position of Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights was filled before the impeachment issue dominated government actions.  Ambassador Lee Jung-hoon was named South Korea’s Ambassador-at-Large for North Korean Human Rights in September 2016.

Following the removal from office of President Park Geun-hye, early elections were held in May 2017, and Moon Jae-in was elected president of South Korea.  He and his administration consciously played down North Korean human rights abuses in the belief that this would help in his priority effort to engage with North Korea and bring the two countries closer together.  Ambassador Lee Jung-hoon was asked to resign, and no Ambassador for North Korea Human Rights was appointed for the entire five-year term of Moon Jae-in.  At the Ministry of Unification, the measures that had not yet been implemented in accordance with the North Korea Human Rights Act were shelved.  Creation of the Human Rights Foundation was a key provision of the legislation that was not completed.  The Foundation was charged to “investigate the actual status of human rights in North Korea and to engage in research, policy development, etc. related to the improvement of human rights in North Korea, including inter-Korean dialogue on human rights and humanitarian assistance.”

Another key provision of the legislation was the requirement for the Ministry of Unification to establish an archive of documents and information gathered from individuals who leave North Korea which document human rights abuses they have endured or witnessed.  These documents are to be turned over to the Ministry of Justice quarterly.  The objective is to prepare documentation that could be used in legal proceedings against those in North Korea who are guilty of human rights violations.  The gathering of such materials was already part of the process of dealing with new arrivals from North Korea, and the legislation formalized the process and directed that these materials be preserved by the Ministry of Justice for possible trials of North Korean officials in the future.

The legislation also directed the Minister of Unification to prepare an annual report to the National Assembly “on the improvement of human rights in North Korea.”  The report is to discuss the “Status of human rights in North Korea,” “progress of improving human rights,” “plans for repatriation of Korean War prisoners detained in North Korea and abductees in North Korea, reunion of separated families,” and other matters the Minister considers “necessary to improve human rights.”

Since the Moon administration sought to play down and ignore North Korea’s human rights abuses, it did not continue to implement the legislation on issues that it could, such as appointment of a new human rights ambassador and creation of the human rights foundation.  On those issues where government implementation had already begun, such as the collection of documentation of human rights abuses, the materials were sent to the Justice Ministry where they were simply archived and no further action was taken.

In many regards, the Trump administration followed the example of the Moon administration in playing down human rights in an effort to make progress in improving political relations with North Korea.  Initially, Trump was highly critical of North Korea, particularly on its human rights record, but when Trump scheduled his high-profile summit with Kim Jong-un, discussion of human rights abuses simply ceased.  (See the comparison of comments on North Korea in Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018 and his address in 2019.)  Ignoring human rights proved to be unsuccessful in the approach to Pyongyang by both Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump.

Report on North Korea Human Rights Abuses Publicly Released for the First Time

The Moon administration fulfilled the letter of the law by producing a report on North Korea’s human rights abuses as required by the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016.  But in an effort to avoid irritating Kim Jong-un by releasing critical information, Moon classified the annual reports, and nothing was publicly released.  The reason given for classifying the report as “confidential data” was “privacy reasons of North Korean defectors who gave interviews.”

The information in the report most likely was not based on highly sensitive intelligence sources and methods, because such reports heavily rely on personal experiences and observations from North Korean defectors.  These individuals are living in South Korea, and their names and the location of events in North Korea can be and in many cases are masked to prevent identification when releasing human rights information.  Despite the concerted effort to avoid irritating North Korea by classifying the documents and not releasing them publicly was unsuccessful, as little progress was made improving relations the with Kim Jong-un regime during the Moon administration.

Current President Yoon SukYeol emphasized that the information about human rights abuses in the North would be fully discussed as required by the North Korea Human Rights Act and made available to the public.  In a statement made during a meeting of his Cabinet a few days before the human rights report was publicly released, President Yoon pointedly said, “The reality of the appalling human rights violations against the North Korean people must be fully revealed to the international community.”  The fact that this issue was highlighted in a meeting of the cabinet indicates the strength of the president’s commitment to human rights.

The published report is based on testimony of 508 North Korea refugees who successfully fled the North and arrived in South Korea between 2017 and 2022.  The report identifies some 1,600 specific human rights violations based on these interviews.

According to information cited in the report, the North Korean government imposed the death penalty in many instances for crimes that do not qualify as the most serious violations.  A North Korean citizen in Ryanggang Province in northern part of the country on the border with China was publicly executed by firing squad for bringing into North Korea videos produced in South Korea and sharing the material with others.  North Koreans have been arrested and executed for secretly bringing South Korean products, including high heel shoes and cosmetics, and selling them in the North.

Another report cites the execution of a woman who was six months pregnant who was seen in a widely-circulated video pointing at a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung (father of the current North Korean leader) while dancing alone in her home.  Another report cited the execution of six teenagers for watching videos from South Korea and smoking opium.

Other accounts report individuals who suffered from schizophrenia or psychiatric conditions being used for medical experiments.  These were not mentally capable of giving valid consent for such human experimentation.  In some cases, families were blackmailed into agreeing to other family members being used as medical test subjects by threatening to send family members to prison camps.  Persons with disabilities, including individuals with dwarfism, were institutionalized and sterilized against their will.  One woman with dwarfism was reportedly forced to undergo a hysterectomy to prevent her from giving birth to any children.

These actions taken against individuals with disabilities is contrary to North Korea’s efforts to improve (very modestly) its human rights record by inviting the Special Rapporteur on persons with disabilities appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to visit Pyongyang in May 2017.  These reports suggest North Korean progress on disabilities is very limited, and may be more inhumane.

Positive Steps Forward

The apparent detail and scope of the recently released human rights report from the Ministry of Unification on North Korean government actions reflects the thorough and careful collection of data from refugees recently arriving in South Korea from the North.  Making the information publicly available is an important step forward in the effort to press the Kim Jong-un regime to improve human rights conditions

In the recent cabinet meeting at which President Yoon called for the full disclosure of North Korean human rights abuses with the publication of the human rights report, he said: “Seven years have passed since the North Korean Human Rights Act was enacted, but the North Korean human rights foundation has still not been launched and the North Korean human rights report is only now being published.  The North Korean Human Rights Act must be implemented in practice even now.”  The South Korean government plans to distribute the human rights report to think tanks and public libraries, and an English-language version will also be produced to provide information for international organizations.

The publication of the 2023 report on North Korea human rights is an important and long-awaited step forward in South Korea’s full implementation of the North Korea Human Rights Act adopted in 2016.  But there have also been a number of other important recent actions by the administration of President Yoon in this effort.  Just a few weeks ago, the Minister of Unification announced the creation of a committee to advise on the creation of the Human Rights Foundation that is called for in the Human Rights Act.  The appointment of Professor Lee Shin-wha as South Korean Ambassador for North Korea human rights issues in June 2022, as well as South Korean support for UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly resolutions calling for improved human rights in North Korea are also most welcome policy changes.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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