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South Korea: Stop Intimidating North Korean Human Rights Groups

Political Crackdown with Targeted Reviews, Inspections Prompts Fears

Activist Park Sang-hak holds a leaflet depicting the death of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, during a press conference in Seoul on July 6, 2020. © 2020 Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – The South Korean government is targeting activist organizations that focus on North Korea’s human rights problems for special review in an apparent effort to intimidate them, Human Rights Watch said today. Tensions between the South Korean government and some activists sharpened significantly after North Korea’s leaders threatened retaliation because some groups sent leaflets across the border that strongly criticized North Korea’s human rights record and leadership.

The Unification Ministry informed groups focused on North Korea’s human rights issues, or on the integration of North Koreans in South Korea, that they must comply with abrupt review deadlines and burdensome documentary requirements, and face possible office inspections. The sudden decision to review the registration status of all such groups is unprecedented. Other groups registered with the ministry that conduct activities centered on development or humanitarian assistance have not been subjected to such demands.

“The South Korean government should halt this targeted campaign of regulatory intimidation against civil society groups,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The recent controversy regarding cross-border leaflets should not override the need to support and protect a diverse civil society that presses North Korea to respect human rights.”

The South Korean government denied that these actions were in response to North Korea’s threat to damage bilateral ties and negotiations if groups in the South kept sending leaflets across the border. But there is little doubt that the actions are related. On July 22, Yoh Sangkey, a Unification Ministry spokesperson said: “… We took into account recent events and hope you understand that it triggered a general inspection of our work related to our registration, the registration of corporations and organizations at the Ministry of Unification.”

Organizations whose primary mission is charitable activity concerning North Korea must register with the Ministry of Unification. On July 20, the South Korean government sent notice of an administrative review of the registrations to all 64 nongovernmental groups registered with the Unification Ministry as “non-profit private organizations” that are working on North Korean human rights or supporting efforts to assist North Koreans who have made their way to South Korea to adapt to life there.

Specifically, the authorities imposed burdensome requirements on these groups to produce documentation by July 30 similar to what they provided at the time of their original registration, to prove that the group satisfies the legal requirements in the Assistance for Non-Profit Private Organization Act. The ministry stated it may contact the groups by phone or make on-site visits after it reviews the documents.

When pressed by Human Rights Watch, ministry officials said that they did not rule out reviewing the registrations of other nongovernmental groups registered in the ministry, including those working on humanitarian and development issues in North Korea, but they said they did not have specific plans to do so.

The ministry also announced on July 16 that 25 groups incorporated as businesses to work on North Korean human rights and assisting North Korean defectors resettle in South Korea must undergo “office inspections,” which will begin in August. It said the inspections were necessary because the groups had failed to fully “report the operational performance they are required to submit every year” or “require additional fact-checking.”

The ministry later clarified that all corporations, including those from other sectors, may also be inspected later, but did not specify when. The ministry invoked article 8 of the “Regulations on the Establishment and Supervision of Not-For-Profit Private Organizations under the Jurisdiction of the Ministry of Unification,” which states that based on article 37 of the Civil Code the unification minister may carry out “office inspections in necessary cases.”

The government has neither announced a clear rationale for these reviews and inspections nor identified what criteria will be used to make regulatory decisions.

On July 22, a coalition of 25 organizations working on North Korean human rights and supporting North Koreans living in South Korea issued a joint statement rejecting office inspections. The coalition called the government’s actions discriminatory, lacking in transparency, and intended to provoke fear and intimidation, creating a chilling effect on the affected groups.

Pyongyang’s ire at South Korea appears related to a group’s action on May 31, 2020 to send 20 balloons carrying 500,000 leaflets criticizing North Korea’s nuclear threats against South Korea. On June 4, a senior North Korean leader and sister of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong, demanded that the Moon government “make a law” banning the use of balloons to send leaflets into North Korea or face dire consequences in North-South relations. She threatened that if South Korea didn’t act to stop such cross-border actions, North Korea would scrap a 2018 non-hostility military pact with South Korea, shut down the North-South liaison office, and withdraw from the joint-venture Kaesong Industrial Park. To underscore its anger, on June 16, North Korea unilaterally blew up the North-South liaison office and the North’s Korean Central News Agency directly tied the action to anger over the leaflets.

South Korea quickly responded by announcing plans to adopt legislation prohibiting people from sending leaflets into North Korea, and opened investigations into two groups, the Fighters For Free North Korea for sending balloons with leaflets and KuenSaem, for sending plastic bottles with rice into North Korea. On July 17, the Unification Ministry revoked the two groups’ registration for “seriously hindering the unification policy of the government.”

“This intimidation campaign against certain groups damages the country’s record of respect for civil and political rights,” Robertson said. “President Moon Jae-in should order the Unification Ministry to act in a way that shows respect for human rights, in line with legacy that Moon and many other progressive leaders struggled in the past to achieve in South Korea.”

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