The ROK North Korea Human Rights Act

March 14, 2016 7:00 AM

Two weeks ago the South Korean National Assembly passed the North Korea Human Rights Act in a landslide vote (220-0, with 24 abstentions). The bill was over a decade in the making and demonstrates a new willingness on the South Korean left to emphasize human rights in North Korea policy. (I have translated the full text of the bill and included it below).

Conservative lawmakers in the National Assembly first introduced a human rights bill in 2005, a year after the US Congress passed the US North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004. While in the United States North Korean human rights is a bipartisan issue, elements on the left in South Korea have pushed back against a bill for years due to fears that it would damage inter-Korean relations. Sunshine Policy era presidents provided abundant aid to North Korea and saw overt criticism of human rights issues as anathema to the development of inter-Korean relations. President Park, on the other hand, initially sought to wed a firm stance on human rights together with unconditional humanitarian assistance. However, because of North Korean nuclear and missile tests resuming immediately after her inauguration in 2013 she has been unable to carry out her vision. It’s noteworthy that a key part of this bill deals with the nexus between humanitarian aid and human rights promotion, specifically requiring internationally accepted transparency standards. Humanitarian assistance is now down to almost nothing, but this raises the bar in the future.

The passage of the ROK North Korea Human Rights Act underscores a shift politically in South Korea and establishes North Korean human rights promotion as a legal requirement. The law sticks to most of the fundamentals of a Grand National Party bill Steph Haggard wrote about on this blog five years ago.

The ROK North Korea Human Rights Act:

  1. Establishes a human rights foundation tasked with researching North Korea human rights promotion strategy, documenting human rights abuses, and providing assistance to groups conducting these tasks.
  2. Creates an archive of North Korean human rights abuses. The collected records are then transferred to the Ministry of Justice, which could allow for eventual prosecution under a unified Korea.
  3. Calls upon the South Korean government to cooperate with international institutions and to make efforts to increase global interest in North Korean human rights issues. It also establishes an Ambassador-level envoy for international cooperation on North Korean human rights.
  4. Requires the government to promote inter-Korean human rights dialogue, including discussing issues related to POWs, kidnapped South Koreans living in North Korea, and separated families.
  5. Requires that humanitarian assistance be provided according to internationally accepted transparency standards.
  6. Creates additional bureaucratic responsibilities, primarily for the Ministry of Unification, to report on and submit strategies for human rights promotion.

Comparisons with the US North Korea Human Rights Act

The North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 is a much more detailed document than the Korean version. It starts by enumerating the crimes committed by North Korea and the nature of the Kim regime, while the South Korean version limits this kind of name-and-shaming. Comparing the six aims of the ROK bill mentioned above:

  1. The US version does not create a new “North Korea Human Rights Foundation” but is more detailed in its requirements of the President to promote a variety of human rights issues, including promoting democracy, increasing North Korea’s marketization, and assisting refugees. The South Korean version does not mention any of these activities.
  2. There is no human rights archive called for in the US version.
  3. The US act specifically mentions the importance of the work of the UN in advocating for human rights issues in North Korea. Like the South Korean version, the US act created a Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea which is tasked with promoting international engagement on the issue.
  4. The US act instructs the government to “explore the possibility of a regional human rights dialogue with North Korea that is modeled on the Helsinki Process, engaging all countries in the region in a common commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The US act does not mention the South Korean POW issue but requires that before non-humanitarian assistance may be provided to North Korea, the DPRK must make substantial progress toward “providing for family reunification between North Koreans and their descendants and relatives in the United States.” The US act also requires the State Department to submit a report with estimates on the number of American citizens of Korean descent who have families in North Korea. In the introductory portion of the law it also mentions that North Korea is responsible for kidnapping South Korean and Japanese citizens but there is no directive in the law to address this.
  5. The US act, like the Korean version, requires transparency in regards to humanitarian assistance. It specifically requires humanitarian assistance to be monitored so that it is not diverted for political or military use. It conditions substantial increases in humanitarian assistance to be contingent upon improvements in North Korean transparency.
  6. The US act has similar reporting requirements for USAID and the State Department that the ROK version includes.

Another difference in the US version is that the Congress authorizes specific sums of money (for specific activities) in the act itself. In the 2004 US act the US government authorized $24 million per year for funding activities related to North Korea human rights promotion. (the Re-authorization Act of 2012 reduced this amount although much of the funding came through other US government sources anyway). It should be clear that authorization does not equal allocation, so the Congress could de-fund activities through the allocations process if it saw fit. The Congress also requires itself to re-authorize the act every four years whereas there is no such requirement in the South Korean bill. Re-authorization in South Korea would likely be controversial and become enmeshed in other political issues whereas in the US it is not. This is reflected most specifically not by the activities that the law prescribes but by the activities that it does not mention.

Many of the activities mandated in the South Korean law deal with records collecting, research, and devising policies for the government to promote North Korea human rights. The law does not mention democracy promotion, information penetration, supporting the development of a North Korean market economy, or aiding refugees living outside of the DPRK. There are fears from the left that if the law is applied liberally the Minister of Unification could provide funds through the North Korea Human Rights Foundation for such controversial activities. But there is no specific requirement for the government to fund NGOs that engage in this kind of work whereas these activities are all specifically mandated in detail in the US act.

Despite the limits of the ROK North Korea Human Rights Act its passage represents a shift in the conversation in South Korean politics commensurate with a growing international focus on North Korea’s human rights issues and Park Geun-Hye’s own approach to establishing human rights engagement as a pillar of Seoul’s North Korea policy. Now that this shift has been enshrined in law we should expect this momentum to continue even if a more liberal administration succeeds President Park.


(Disclaimer: the following translation can be used as a general guide to the bill but is my translation and therefore unofficial. The original Korean version can be found here.)

North Korea Human Rights Act

Adopted 2016.3.3 Law No. 14070, date law goes into effect 2016.9.4

Chapter 1 (purpose)

The purpose of this law is to protect and promote the human rights of North Korean citizens as promulgated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protect the right of freedom and existence. Through pursuit of these ideals this law seeks to promote and protect the human rights of North Koreans.

Chapter 2 (Basic principle and national responsibility)

  1. The State confirms that North Korean citizens have dignity and value as human beings and the right to pursue happiness. The State must work to protect and promote the human rights of North Korean citizens (hereinafter referred to as “North Korea human rights promotion”).
  2. The State must also work to promote the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula and the development of inter-Korean relations alongside North Korea human rights promotion efforts.
  3. In order to carry out North Korea human rights promotion efforts necessary finances must be provided in a regular and consistent manner.

Chapter 3 (Definition)

References to “North Korean citizens” in this law refer to persons who reside to the north of the military demarcation line. This includes people whose basis of family life, including maintaining a spouse, and work life, and so forth is located in this region.

Chapter 4 (Relationship with other laws)

This law is established outside of North Korea human rights promotion efforts promulgated in measures in laws on inter-Korean exchange cooperation, the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund Law, and the Law pertaining to Inter-Korean Relations Development.

Chapter 5 (North Korea Human Rights Consultative Council)

  1. In order to provide consultative activities on policy pertaining to North Korea human rights promotion a North Korea Human Rights Promotion Consultative Council (hereinafter referred to as “Council”) shall be established at the Ministry of Unification.
  2. Including the Council chairperson, the Council shall be comprised of ten members recommended by the National Assembly. The chairperson shall be selected among the ten members. The Minister of Unification shall recommend members for the Council. Those from bargaining parties currently or previous affiliated with the President’s party may only be appointed at a one out of every two member’s basis.
  3. Necessary issues pertaining to the formation of Council members and Council operations and so forth are set by Presidential executive order.

Chapter 6 (North Korea Human Rights Promotion Basic Plan and Implementation Plan)

  1. The Minister of Unification shall work with the relevant head of the central administrative office and consult with the Council to devise a North Korea Human Rights Promotion Basic Plan (hereinafter referred to as “Basic Plan”) every three years. The plan shall cover the following issues.
    1. a. A report on the state of the human rights situation of North Korean citizens.
    2. Provide guidelines for protecting and promoting North Korean human rights through Inter-Korean human rights dialogue and humanitarian support, and so forth.
    3. Outside of this, matters pertaining to the protection and promotion of the human rights of North Korean citizens shall be addressed by Presidential executive order.
  2. The Minister of Unification according to the Basic Plan must every year submit a North Korea human rights promotion implementation plan (hereto referred to as “Implementation Plan”) in consultation with the Council.
  3. The Unification Minister shall report to the National Assembly in a timely manner at the time that the Basic Plan and Implementation Plan are submitted.

Chapter 7 (Promoting inter-Korean human rights dialogue)

  1. The government must promote inter-Korean dialogue pertaining to the principle issues of North Korea Human Rights promotion.
  2. In the necessary case if appointing a representative for inter-Korean human rights dialogue, Chapter 15 of the Law Pertaining to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations shall be applied.
  3. Outside of this, the necessary activities pertaining to the promotion of inter-Korean human rights dialogue shall be established by Presidential executive order.

Chapter 8 (Humanitarian assistance)

  1. For North Korea human rights promotion, the State must work to comply with the following measures in the case of providing humanitarian assistance to North Korean authorities or organs.
    1. Activities must be carried out in a transparent manner according to internationally recognized humanitarian standards.
    2. Pregnant women, infants, and so forth, and vulnerable classes must be given priority.
  2. The State must also obey the standards set forth in Chapter 8.1 regarding humanitarian assistance provided through civil society groups.

Chapter 9 (International cooperation regarding North Korea human rights promotion)

  1. The State must work to collaborate with international organs, international groups, foreign governments, and so forth to promote people-to-people exchanges, exchanges of information, and so forth in order to strengthen North Korean human rights promotion. The State must work to strengthen interest in international society regarding North Korean human rights promotion.
  2. To carry out the duties listed in Chapter 9.1, an ambassador who works directly with North Korea human rights issues in foreign affairs (hereinafter referred to as “Ambassador for International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights”) may be established at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  3. Issues regarding the appointment and qualifications for the Ambassador for International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights shall be dealt with by the Presidential executive order.

Chapter 10 (Establishment of the North Korea Human Rights Foundation)

  1. A North Korea Human Rights Foundation (hereinafter referred to as the “Foundation”) shall be established by the government to conduct research and develop policy related to North Korea human rights promotion. It shall report on the state of North Korea’s human rights situation, inter-Korean human rights dialogue, humanitarian assistance, and so forth.
  2. The Foundation shall be incorporated and registered at the location of the main office where it is established.
  3. The Foundation will conduct the following activities, which may be carried out through separate bodies.
    1. Activities with goals pertaining to the following related to inter-Korean human rights dialogue and North Korea human rights promotion
      1. Research and report on the state of North Korea’s human rights situation
      2. Develop alternative policy proposals for the government on inter-Korean human rights dialogue, and so forth.
      3. Outside of this, the Council deliberates and the Minister of Unification assigns duties.
      4. Provide support for civil society groups carrying out the above activities listed in Chapter 10.3.1.1-3.
    2.  Activities with goals pertaining to the following related to humanitarian assistance and North Korea human rights promotion
      1. Research and report on the internal humanitarian needs within North Korea.
      2. Develop alternative policy proposals for the government on North Korea humanitarian assistance.
      3. Outside of this, the Council deliberates and the Minister of Unification assigns duties.
      4. Provide support for civil society groups carrying out the above activities listed in Chapter 10.3.2.1-3.
  4. Outside of this, any necessary issues pertaining to the establishment of the Foundation shall be addressed through Presidential executive order.

Chapter 11 (Operation of the Foundation)

  1. The Foundation shall be operated through finances from the following:
    1. Government contributions
    2. Outside contributions
  2. Contributions voluntarily received by the Foundation notwithstanding the Law pertaining to the Collection of Contribution previsions under Chapter 5.2, in accordance with the purposes of use, must be approved and recorded by the Minister of Unification.
  3. The Minister of Unification advises and directs the Foundation.
  4. The Minister of Unification can for the purposes of carrying out the goals of the Foundation when needed request that government officials from relevant government agencies be assigned to the Foundation.
  5. In regards to the Foundation, any stipulations regarding the incorporation shall follow the Civil Code except when specifically stipulated in this law.
  6. Outside of this, any necessary tasks pertaining to the Foundation’s management, leadership, and direction, the process for submitting financial donations, and so forth shall be established by Presidential executive order.

Chapter 12 (Formation of the board members of the Foundation)

  1. Including the chairperson there shall be a total of twelve board members. Members shall be comprised of two people recommended by the Ministry of Unification as well as through recommendations from the National Assembly. Members are appointed by the Minister of Unification. Members currently or previously affiliated with the President’s party or bargaining parties currently or previously affiliated with the President’s party may only be appointed at the basis of one out of every two members.
  2. Besides the chairperson and full-time board members established through the rules of association all other board members shall serve in a non-full-time status.
  3. The chairperson is selected from among the board members and serves along with other members for a period of three years. Reappointment for the chairperson and other board members is allowed one time through ex-officio board membership.
  4. Outside of this, any necessary issues pertaining to the appointment of the Foundation’s board, and so forth shall be established by Presidential executive order.

Chapter 13 (North Korea Human Rights Archive)

  1. In order to promote North Korean human rights and record the status of North Korea’s human rights situation a North Korea Human Rights Archive (“hereto referred to as “Archive”) shall be established at the Ministry of Unification.
  2. The Archive shall carry out the follow activities and be responsible for collecting materials related to information gathering, research, records preservation, publishing, and so forth.
    1. Tasks pertaining to research and reports on North Korea’s human rights status.
    2. Tasks pertaining to prisoners of war, Koreans kidnapped and taken to North Korea, and separated families.
    3. Outside of this, for tasks in which the Council and Minister of Unification deem necessary.
  3. Each of the activities mentioned in Chapter 13.2 may be consigned to an outside party. In this case finances from the budget can be used to support this.
  4. There will be one director of the Archive who shall be selected from the senior civil service or be a civilian expert with significant academic and professional expertise in North Korea human rights. The position shall be appointed by the Minister of Unification.
  5. The materials collected and recorded by the Archive shall every three months be transferred to the Ministry of Justice where for the Ministry of Justice shall be the organ responsible for preserving and managing the materials.
  6. Outside of this, any necessary issues pertaining the Archive’s formation or management and so forth shall be established by Presidential executive order.

Chapter 14 (Cooperation with Relevant Organs)

  1. The Minister of Unification shall be responsible for tasks pertaining to North Korea human rights promotion, submission of materials, and statements of opinion regarding relevant activities of administrative bodies, public bodies, and related persons. Outside of this, if it is necessary to carry out tasks related to policy implementation, the Ministry of Unification may request cooperation.
  2. Requests received by relevant persons and directors of administrative and public bodies in accordance with Chapter 14.1 must be approved provided there are no special circumstances.
  3. If relevant central administrative body or local government offices adopt or intend to adopt measures or ordinances relevant to this law they must notify the Minister of Unification ahead of time.

Chapter 15 (National Assembly Report)

  1. Besides the Basic Plan and Implementation Plan the Minister of Unification must submit a report on North Korea human rights promotion every year before the regular meeting of the National Assembly that includes the following.
    1. The state of North Korean human rights.
    2. The results of North Korea human rights promotion and status of reforms.
    3. The status of plans to repatriate prisoners of war back to South Korea and Koreans kidnapped and living in North Korea, as well as efforts on holding reunions for separated families.
    4. Results, evaluations, and accounting information from the national government and local government and public bodies as they pertain to responsibilities outlined in Chapter 15.1.1-3.
    5. Outside of this, anything needed for North Korea human rights promotion as recognized by the Minister of Unification.
  2. The National Assembly may, as it deems necessary, offer advice for reform and oversight as it pertains to government reports on activities listed in Chapter 15.1

Chapter 16 (Penalties for Civil Servants)

Appointees to the Foundation receiving appointment as stipulated in Chapter 10 will be viewed as public servants as it pertains to the performance of their duties, and applicable laws in Chapters 127, and 129-132 of the Criminal Code will apply.

Chapter 17 (Penalties)

Those providing false testimony or obtaining funds unethically in association with the activities of this law shall receive a minimum three years’ confinement or pay a 30,000,000 Won fine.

Supplementary Provisions

  1. (Date the law goes into effect)

This law goes into effect after a period of six months has passed after the law is passed.

  1. (Preparation for the establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation)
    1. The Minister of Unification must within thirty days from the day the law goes into effect form an establishment council of seven people tasked with carrying out business pertaining to establishing the Foundation.
    2. The establishment council will decide on rules of association for the Foundation for which the approval of the Minister of Unification must be received. After receiving approval, without delay the Foundation’s incorporation must be registered through joint signing between the establishment council and Minister of Unification.
    3. After the establishment council has registered the incorporation of the Foundation, without delay it must transfer duties to the chairperson of the Foundation. After the transfer of duties has been completed the Council is relinquished of duties and dissolved.
    4. The State is responsible for providing necessary finances for the establishment of the Foundation.

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