Lawmakers from South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party are seeking amendments to language within two existing ROK laws relating to abductions by the DPRK in order to avoid “conflict” with North Korea, two bills filed by 12 assembly members show.
The proposed amendments to the existing laws were filed on August 13 in Bills 14846 and 14847.
The changes being sought would see the removal of any references to North Korean involvement in abductions as well as replacing the term “abductee” with the word “missing persons.”
Amendments being proposed pertain to The Act on Finding the Truth of the Damage from North Korea’s Abduction during the Korean War and Restoring Honor of the Victims and the Law on Compensation and Assistance for Victims Abducted to North Korea since the Conclusion of the Armistice Agreement.
Within both of the bills, the 12 assembly members provide an explanation for the changes they seek in language regarding abductees during the Korean War and after the armistice was signed in 1953.
“The current law defines the term ‘a person abducted to North Korea in wartime/abductee’ as a citizen of the Republic of Korea who was residing in South Korea but forcibly kidnapped by North Korea against his/her will during the Korean War and has been detained or has resided in North Korea thereafter,” an introduction to Bill 14846 reads.
“However, an expression of ‘a person abducted to North Korea/abductee’ is a term that shows strong resistance from North Korea’s side,” it adds.
The introduction for the second bill, Bill 14847, is the same, though it concerns post-1953 abductees.
The proposals then claim that in ministerial and working level meetings with the DPRK, ROK negotiators already use language such as “a person whose news is unknown” in order to avoid issues during talks.
“Accordingly, by changing the term from ‘a person abducted to North Korea/abductee’ to ‘a missing person in wartime’, it is to arrange a legal basis for the ease of the conflict between inter-Korean relations, caused by the legal terminology,” the proposal reads.
The bills request that the language throughout the existing legislation be thoroughly changed, including when referencing the families of those who have been abducted.
They suggest the law be changed to refer to them as “families of missing persons” instead.
Both bills are under examination by the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee and must clear the committee level before being moved on to the Assembly’s plenary session. It is as yet unclear if it will pass committee or what the reaction will be in the assembly should it do so.
The lawmakers proposing the changes are Song Gab-seok, Shin Kyoung-min, Jung Jae-ho, Lee Hoon, Park Jeung, Ahn Gyu-back, Kim Byoung-gwan, Kwon Chil-seung, Park Hong-geun, Park Kwang-gon, Lee Soo-hyuck and Shim Jae-kwon.
Their proposals were filed just 17 days before the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, which occurs on August 30.
Amendment procedure | Bill 14846
HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS REACT
While it is not known if the bills are likely to progress, the suggested amendments to the law in order to avoid confrontation with North Korea has alarmed human rights groups with 12 such organizations issuing a joint letter to United Nations officials objecting to the proposal on Monday.
The letter, co-authored by the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), urges the UN to inform ROK officials that such amendments would be contrary to human rights norms and the findings of the international community and experts previously tasked with investigating abuses by the DPRK.
The letter is addressed to representatives from the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul and the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
It is also addressed to Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK, and Fabian Salvioli, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.
“The proposed changes, if adopted by the ROK Parliament, will allow abductees to be redefined under this law and will create a difficult situation for South Korean families seeking justice and truth in the future, as stated in the recommendations of the UN Commission of Inquiry for DPRK and the UN Panel of Experts on Accountability for DPRK,” the letter reads.
The letter also says the proposals indicate “a legislative intent to remove responsibility for abductions by changing the language of the law.”
“Instead of bringing North Korea further into the realm of internationally accepted human rights standards, many of which the DPRK also ratified, these legislative proposals are seeking to lower international and domestic standards to North Korean ones,” it adds.
NK News reached out to the Ministry of Unification (MOU) to inquire as to whether it avoids using terms such as “abductee” in its talks with the DPRK as the bills suggest.
“These legislative proposals are seeking to lower international and domestic standards to North Korean ones,” human rights groups say
“The South and the North have agreed to ‘resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation’ and to ‘discuss and solve various issues including the reunion of separated families’ in the Panmunjom Declaration,” the ministry said in response.
“We ask your understanding that we are unable to specifically mention the details with regard to inter-Korean talks.”
The MOU also said it would be inappropriate to publicly comment on issues related to ongoing legislative activities of South Korean lawmakers in response to questions on whether it coordinated with any of the 12 members for the proposed bills.
It did confirm, however, that it was reviewing the legislation.
APPEASEMENT FOR PROGRESS?
The proposed changes come amid a year of renewed inter-Korean cooperation following a sustained period of tensions in 2016 and 2017.
While talks between the two Koreas in 2018 have been occurring relatively smoothly, the use of language such as “abductees” during inter-Korean negotiations has in the past proven to be a sticking point for the DPRK.
2007’s 8th Red Cross talks saw North Korean representatives vocalize their objection to the South Korean media using the term and warned ROK representatives that such language would make it difficult for negotiations to proceed.
Despite the South Korean’s agreeing to alter their language regarding abductees, no agreement was subsequently reached in the 2007 discussions.
According to the bills, Assembly Member Song Gab-seok took the initiative in proposing the amendments and his office reaffirmed that it is seeking a change in the language as terms like “abductee” hamper inter-Korean talks. Song worked as part of Moon Jae-in’s Presidential candidacy, according to his personal website.
His office, when speaking to NK News, denied that the change in language would affect victims of abductions and would serve only to help progress inter-Korean talks.
“We will keep their status, respectful treatment, among other things,” a representative told NK News. “But we strive to prevent an unnecessary inter-Korean conflict and arrange an array of legal basis to accelerate the repatriation of survivors and remains by changing the legal terminology.”
“It doesn’t mean we disrespect them, but our purpose is rather to take one more step and heal their pains and broken hearts swiftly,” they added.
“We strive to prevent an unnecessary inter-Korean conflict and arrange an array of legal basis to accelerate the repatriation of survivors and remains by changing the legal terminology,” lawmaker’s office says.
The Korean War Abductees Family Union, based in South Korea, had a very different reaction to the proposals.
“That’s not true. If we say persons abducted by North Korea, there are perpetrators. And it is a crime. But if labeling them as missing persons, there is no perpetrator,” President of the Union Lee Mi-il, herself the daughter of an abductee, said.
Lee added that the lawmakers were amending the law “to conceal North Korea’s crime.”
“We won’t be able to bring Pyongyang to account,” she added.
North Korean abductions of ROK nationals and nationals of other countries is widely documented and was also one of the subjects under investigation by a 2013 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) into North Korean human rights abuses.
“Since 1950, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has engaged in the systematic abduction, denial of repatriation and subsequent enforced disappearance of persons from other countries on a large scale and as a matter of State policy,” the COI final report, published in 2014, reads.
It says that the number of victims of enforced disappearances – as defined in Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance – could amount to over 200,000.
The COI states that the “vast majority” of abductions and enforced disappearances were linked to the Korean War, which ended in the existing armistice agreement in 1953.
“However, hundreds of nationals of the Republic of Korea, Japan and other States were also abducted and disappeared between the 1960s and 1980s,” the report reads.
In the conclusion of the COI report, it lists such disappearances as a crime against humanity, describing the “shock and pain” caused by such practices as “indescribable.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham