North Korea Activists Contest South Korean Elections

2008-02-14
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Fleeing North Koreans, painted by a teenage defector. Image: Jang Kil-soo.

SEOUL—Several prominent South Korean campaigners against human rights abuses in Stalinist North Korea have vowed to stand in the forthcoming general elections in April, which many hope will have a profound impact on the country's parliament.

Among those announcing their plans to apply for nomination was Do Hee-yoon, who heads the non-government Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees.

“I have applied for nomination as Grand National Party (GNP) candidate in the 18th National Assembly election,” said Do, who hopes to stand in Kang-Seo district of the port city of Pusan.

“In recent years, I have focused all my efforts on my first and foremost priority, human rights in North Korea,” he said.

Do, who works with North Korean defectors and former South Korean prisoners of war (POWs) held in the North, has direct experience with the effects of abuses perpetrated by North Korean authorities.

Direct experience of rights abuses

For awhile now, in the name of the Sunshine Policy, the South Korean government has neglected action needed to improve the human rights of our brethren in the North.

“I have witnessed, up close and personal, better than anybody else, the anguish of South Korean POWs in North Korea, and the torment of North Korean defectors whose human rights have been so blatantly violated,” he told RFA’s Korean service.

“Should my bid for the National Assembly be successful, this will place my experience in a far-reaching perspective, thus enabling me to broaden my outreach and open a door toward finding a remedy for the human rights abuses in North Korea,” Do said.

Do’s campaign was welcomed by North Korean human rights groups in South Korea, who are keen to have advocates for their cause sitting in the country’s legislature, the National Assembly.

“We think of Mr. Do Hee-yoon as one of us, a human rights practitioner and advocate,” international rights activist Kim Sang Hun said.

“If people like him who are well aware of the human rights situation in North Korea are elected as members of the South Korean National Assembly, this will be a very positive development for our mission,” said Kim, whose organization struggles to keep the issue of human rights in North Korea in the public eye.

Another would-be nominee is Shin Ji-Ho, who hopes to stand as a candidate for the conservative opposition GNP in Seoul’s Tobong constituency in the April 9 polls.

Government 'neglects' rights issues

“For a while now, in the name of the Sunshine Policy, the South Korean government has neglected action needed to improve the human rights of our brethren in the North,” said Shin, who is president of the New Light Liberty Union, a civic group concerned with human rights in North Korea.

Shin is a recognized North Korea expert, a Sogang University adjunct professor, and member of the North Korea research team at the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI).

“If elected, I will spare no effort to ensure genuine improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea,” he said.

Shin, who would fight incumbent and former health minister Kim Geun Tae for the Tobong seat, vowed to work toward ensuring that Pyongyang abandons its nuclear program, missile production, and programs to build other weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, Do, who failed to win a parliamentary seat at the last election, pledged to support an amendment to legislation on compensation for South Korean civilians abducted by North Korea, and the passing of a pending Act on Human Rights in North Korea.

Do will face tough competition from incumbent Chung Hyung-keun, seeking his fourth term as a National Assembly member. Chung has acted as chairman of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee and Health and Welfare Committee and has been a vocal critic of engagement with North Korea.

Sunshine Policy less popular

Also in the capital, Choi Hong-Jae of Liberty Union said he would seek the GNP nomination for Eun-Pyong district, bringing the number of Liberty Union senior executives applying for GNP nomination to five.

Several incumbent members of the National Assembly who have been paying close attention to human rights in North Korea are also seeking nomination and subsequent re-election as GNP candidates.

Among them are Park Jin in the Chongro electoral district of Seoul, Song Young-sun in the Dong-An district of Anyang, and Hwang Woo-yeo in the Yeonsu district of Inchon.

President-elect Lee Myung-bak appears to be distancing himself from the Sunshine Policy of his predecessors, vowing to “speak his mind” on North Korea.

Experts in inter-Korean relations say that having North Korean experts in the legislature could spark a groundswell of opinion changes among legislators on the right way to engage with Pyongyang.

But they say real change is unlikely in the absence of a complete change of attitude on the part of the North Korean government.

“It is highly unlikely that we will witness an epoch-making transition toward substantial and palpable improvement in the human rights of North Korean citizens in the foreseeable future,” Cho Han-Bum of the Korea Institute for National Unification said.

“What truly matters is that we overcome differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints, and reach national consensus,” Cho added.

Original reporting in Korean by Sungwoo Park. Korean service director: Kwang-chool Lee. Translation from the Korean and additional research by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Korean

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