South Korea is targeting organisations that focus on North Korea’s human rights problems for special review, said Human Rights Watch, calling the apparent effort to intimidate them a “political crackdown”.
Tensions between the South Korean government and some activists heightened significantly after North Korea’s leaders threatened retaliation provoked by groups that sent leaflets strongly criticising North Korea’s human rights record and leadership across the border.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry sought to check if the groups were operating in line with their declared business purposes — a move critics argue was aimed at clamping down on those sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North despite its calls against such activity.
“The South Korean government should halt this targeted campaign of regulatory intimidation against civil society groups,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
“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,” he added.
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 organisations at the Ministry of Unification.”
The South Korean government recently sent notice of an administrative review of the registrations to all 64 nongovernmental groups registered with the Unification Ministry that are working on North Korean human rights or supporting efforts to assist North Koreans who have made their way the South.
Specifically, the authorities imposed burdensome requirements on these groups to produce documentation by July 30 to prove that the group satisfies the legal requirements in the Assistance for Non-Profit Private Organization Act.
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.”
On July 22, a coalition of 25 organisations 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.
“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.” (Source: HRW)