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South Korea Considering Bills to Improve Human Rights in North Korea

Following the recent United Nations resolution condemning the dire human rights situation in North Korea, the South Korean parliament is now considering taking action on the issue, reviving a longstanding debate in the South over how to effect change in the North.

The two major political parties in South Korea have somewhat diametrically opposed views on North Korea. The ruling conservative Saenuri Party supports cautious dealings with the secretive and authoritarian Kim Jong Un regime.

The bill it is sponsoring in parliament would provide funding for North Korean human rights and civic groups operating in South Korea, and would empower the Justice Ministry to document human rights violations in North Korea.

Choi Yong-sang, a secretary general of Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, supports this bill.

He said the government must cooperate with North Korea by having talks, but it also needs to punish North Korea if it makes further provocations.

The more liberal New Politics Alliance for Democracy party believes that outside agitation and condemnation will only further isolate the regime. Its bill supports increased engagement with North Korea, offering humanitarian aid and economic cooperation to bring about change.

Moon Jae-in, a leader of this opposition party and a former presidential candidate, said his opposition party thinks the North Korean human rights bill and the support of the South Korean government must be effective.

Moon specifically opposes any government funding for North Korean defector groups that have been launching balloons filled with anti-regime leaflets across the border.

A recent launch provoked a military exchange of gunfire at the border, and angered North Korean leaders to the point where they canceled high-level talks to ease military tensions.

Moon believes the balloon launches harm the national interest of South Korea. It also violates current law, Moon pointed out; under the inter-Korean exchange law, one must get an approval from the unification minister in order to send things to North Korea.

Since 2005 there have been a number of South Korean legislative proposals to address the dire human rights conditions in the North, but until now there has not been a strong enough consensus across party lines to pass a bill.

That may be changing in light of the United Nations committee vote calling on the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for alleged human rights violations. A U.N. report also detailed decades of systematic abuse in North Korea, including a network of political prisons holding more than 100,000 people and atrocities that include murder, torture, rape, and forced abortions.

Choi Yong-sang said the U.N. action has helped restart negotiations between the two parties to come up with a compromise bill.

The U.N. resolution to prosecute Kim Jong Un and other leaders in the International Criminal Court must first pass the U.N. Security Council, but Russia or China are likely to block it.

VOA News Producer in Seoul Youmi Kim contributed to this report.