The U.S. has reauthorized for five years a law pushing for human rights in North Korea, with lawmakers and rights groups saying the move could help check the nuclear-armed nation’s security threat and open up the reclusive and impoverished country.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama signed legislation renewing the North Korean Human Rights Act through fiscal year 2017, a White House spokesperson said, assuring continued legislative backing for North Korean refugee protection, humanitarian assistance, and democracy promotion.
The rights act, which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly approved renewing, provides the legal ground for the appointment of a special envoy on Pyongyang’s human rights issues and for funding private nonprofit organizations working on North Korea and assistance to refugees.
First passed in 2004 during the President George W. Bush’s administration and later reauthorized for four more years in 2008, the rights act also makes North Korean refugees and defectors eligible for political asylum in the U.S.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican congresswoman from Florida and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who proposed the reauthorization bill, said that the legislation is important to American security because it would help improve the long-term stability of the nuclear-armed country.
“A regime that abuses its own people with impunity cannot be trusted to negotiate honestly with the outside world. Stifling basic freedoms with death camps and firing squads undermines the long-term stability of North Korea,” she said.
“By promoting human rights and transparency, this law is an important part of addressing the North Korean security threat.”
Ros-Lehtinen proposed the legislation, known as the Ambassador James R. Lilley and Congressman Stephen J. Solarz North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2012, to the committee in March. It was approved by the House of Representatives in May and the Senate in August.
The renewed legislation is timely, following North Korea’s handover of power to Kim Jong Un after his father’s death in December 2011, because the country’s “brutal” labor camp system continues under the new leader, Ros-Lehtinen said.
“Even though North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is trying to present a fresh face to the world, he still maintains the same hellish gulag as his father and grandfather before him,” she said.
“North Koreans caught listening to foreign radio broadcasts or worshipping in underground religious services are sent to brutal mountain camps where they are tortured, starved, and worked to death, along with their spouses, children, and extended family. People caught trying to escape the country are executed,” she said.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (CHRNK), a U.S.-based group of rights specialists, says eliminating the labor camp system, which holds hundreds of thousands of prisoners, should be North Korea’s first step in improving its human rights situation.
“North Korea should take a first and very important step towards becoming a responsible member of the international community by dismantling its political prison camp system, whose existence it has been denying,” the CHRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu said.
A report by the group estimates that between 150,000 and 200,000 prisoners are detained under dire circumstances, suffering torture, forced labor, and induced malnutrition, he said.
After the Senate passed the reauthorization of the human rights law, CHRNK sent a letter to Obama urging the U.S. to take action to persuade North Korea’s leader to dismantle the prison system, open up its closed society, and cease the violent repression of its citizens, Scarlatoiu said.
The North Korea Human Rights Act provides the legal framework for nongovernmental organizations working to open up North Korea through promoting democracy, rule of law, and freedom of information in the country, officials said.
“The U.S. State Department provides over $3 million in grant money to nongovernmental organizations focused on increasing access to information and improving human rights for the people of North Korea,” James P. Zumwalt, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan affairs, said at a hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in June.
“We remain deeply concerned about the dire human rights situation in North Korea,” he said in his testimony.
The rights act also paves the way for humanitarian aid inside North Korea, including food aid, which Washington suspended in March ahead of Pyongyang’s botched satellite launch that violated disarmament agreements.
The reauthorization law adds a statement to the previous legislation that China should stop forcibly deporting North Korean refugees found within its borders.
The U.S. was the first country to pass legislation on North Korea’s human rights, followed by Japan in 2006. But in South Korea, politicians remain sharply split on a similar rights law.
The proposed North Korea Human Rights Law has sat in limbo in South Korea’s National Assembly since 2008, with conservatives in favor using it to take a firm stance against Pyongyang while progressives say it will provoke their northern neighbor and worsen inter-Korean relations.
Suzanne Scholte, president of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, another U.S.-based rights group, said that the bipartisan support in the U.S. for the rights act should serve as an example for South Korea.
“In the United States, the two political parties were united in passing the North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2012, addressing the world’s worst human rights violator,” she said.
“I hope the North Korea Human Rights Act will be passed in South Korea as well.”
South Korea’s pending law is similar to the U.S.’s and would establish a rights envoy to North Korea in the Foreign Ministry, an advisory committee in the Unification Ministry, an archive at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, and a fund for rights causes.
Reported by Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.