US push on human rights divides parties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 October, 2004, 12:00am

There has been a mixed reaction in South Korea to the US Senate's approval of a bill designed to pressure North Korea into improving its record on human rights.

The leader of South Korea's ruling Uri Party warned that the North Korea Human Rights Act 2004 could backfire and severely damage inter-Korean relations.

'It is very desirable to improve human rights conditions in North Korea, but we are compelled to consider the adverse impact the law may have on our economy if inter-Korean relations worsen,' South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted Lee Bu-Young as saying.

Following similar legislation passed by the House of Representatives in July, the Senate unanimously approved spending of up to US$24 million a year over the next four years to improve human rights in North Korea.

The money would be used to fund non-governmental organisations working for improved human rights in the North, expand radio broadcasts to the communist country and support North Korean defectors in third countries. It would also make it easier for North Korean refugees to apply for immigration to the United States.

The Uri Party believes the legislation could upset Seoul's pursuit of quiet diplomacy in its dealings with Pyongyang. The international community is currently locked in a standoff with North Korea over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

'We must think about whether the issue has to be addressed just now because we have to worry about the overall relationship between the North and South,' Mr Lee said.

But in a reflection of the political divide over how to deal with the North, the opposition conservative Grand National Party has accused the government and ruling party of sacrificing the human rights of North Koreans for talks.

'The ruling party's attempt to challenge the [US] bill is equivalent to their pursuit of inter-Korean dialogue at the cost of North Korean human rights,' party spokeswoman Jun Yeo-ok said.