North Korean refugee-led civic groups in South Korea have become the target of sweeping government inspections as Seoul seeks to re-engage with Pyongyang, which says heightened tensions on the peninsula are the fault of activist groups who send anti-Pyongyang leaflets by balloon over the border. Inter-Korean tensions reached a crescendo in June when Pyongyang cut off all official communication with Seoul and blew up a landmark inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
Pyongyang has labeled the leaflet campaigns a violation of inter-Korean summit agreements and demanded that Seoul stop the balloon launches. Seoul has since requested that the groups stop sending leaflets, an activity they have been doing for decades. South Korea’s Unification Ministry last month revoked the operation permits of two of the civic groups, making them ineligible for tax benefits, and hampering their ability to raise funds.
At that time the ministry announced it would investigate more civic groups. In response, a coalition of 21 Seoul-based NGOs petitioned the United Nations, asking for a review of the matter. The investigations into the business activities of the groups were launched this week to much criticism. Should they uncover any accounting irregularities, a similar crippling of financial resources could be in store for the groups being probed. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups asked Seoul to stop the audits, calling them a “political crackdown.”
In a July 30 meeting with the ministry, UN special rapporteur on North Korea's human rights situation, Tomás Ojea Quintana, expressed concern over the inspections, saying it should be carried out in a way that does not undermine efforts to improve the North's human rights situation. RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Quintana Wednesday to discuss the takeaways from his meeting with the ministry, and how the United Nations plans to address the investigations. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: During your meeting with the Ministry of Unification, you recommended that the South Korean government stop this investigation into defector-led civic groups, but after meeting with you they continued to move forward with the investigation. What is your reaction?
Quintana: That’s correct. The government said that they would extend the deadline, or [rather] they would allow the organizations to have more time to present reports and documents that the government requested, but you should know that the organizations requested the United Nations to issue a formal communication to the government on this issue and that communication is under my consideration and the consideration of other UN officials, and there is a chance that this communication will be formally issued to the government on this specific issue. So we are following the developments and the actions of the government on this specific issue, we are following also the litigation process that some of the organizations are pursuing. All those elements will inform us, the United Nations, with regards to this communication.
RFA: Regarding the meeting with the South Korean government on July 30, what was your impression?
Quintana: It was a good meeting where they shared technicalities about their decision. They explained the law and the domestic legislation they were applying… I expressed my appreciation to the government for letting me know about what they are doing. It was a useful meeting… But that was on the technical aspects of the situation, and that’s why I later recommended… to put a halt to the process, because in my view, beyond the technicalities and the domestic law application, there is a political decision from the government of South Korea that does not directly respond to the main concern, which is why and how these organizations are being targeted.
Why are only these organizations being targeted? The human rights organizations and the defectors organizations. Only these are being targeted in regards to reviewing their records, et cetera. So that’s the main concern, the specific targeting of these organizations. That’s a political decision. That’s why I recommended to the vice minister to put a hold on this process and try to reach out to the organizations.
Also I recommended that the United Nations office in Seoul intermediate between the government and the organizations with regard to how to address what the government formally explains, which is they are concerned with the transparency of these organizations.
I am very sure that these organizations have nothing to hide and they would like to comply [with] transparency but the question is how to do that.
RFA: It’s been reported that the South Korean government would not rule out actions against human rights groups broadcasting radio programs into North Korea, but the South Korean government has denied this potential measure. But several North Korean refugee-led groups expressed concert that it is likely that the South Korean government may restrict their broadcasting activities into North Korea. What is your opinion on this possibility?
The media is fundamental in any democratic society, and the freedom of expression, even across borders, is protected by international human rights law. So any attempt to exercise this fundamental freedom of expression by broadcasting into North Korea should be respected by the government of South Korea, and the government of South Korea should abide with international human rights law, that describes very specifically how and [under] what conditions restricting this freedom of expression [should be done].
RFA: Several North Korean defector-led groups have appealed to the UN to deal with the South Korean plans to investigate, which you said you would be following. Do you have any specific plan to address their concerns?
Quintana: The role of the human rights organizations working on the North Korean human rights and also the defectors organizations have been playing an important role in the human rights agenda of North Korea and I, the UN rapporteur on human rights value a lot, their work and therefore I think that the government of South Korea should consider the important role that these organizations play with regards to what is important for the United Nations, which is the living conditions of the people in North Korea. That’s one thing and that’s why we are considering these communications and we are making public statements to remind the government of South Korea about their obligations in respect to freedom of expression, in respect to human rights defenders rights and in respect to the role of human rights organizations. That’s the situation at the moment.
RFA: Do you mean you are going to make a public statement to the South Korean government sometime in the future?
Quintana: I already made public statements. I talked to the media, and again, we are considering these communications and once and if these communications are issued, it’s going to be a public statement definitely.
Reported by Sangmin Lee for RFA’s Korean Service.