There’s a US NGO, called Human Rights Foundation, (HQ: New York City) which works on improving and promoting human rights in North Korea.
One of HRF’s ongoing projects is called Disrupt North Korea, which in September 2015 created the Global Coalition for the North Korean Human Rights Act – a group of activists, academics and policymakers and technologists (including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales) whose goal is to encourage South Korean lawmakers to pass the law.
The North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA) has been held up at the National Assembly in South Korea for 10 years now. In fact, there is no NKHRA – it hasn’t been passed yet and different political parties have put forth varying versions. However, both Saenuri (majority) and New Alliance versions contain similar ideas – to systemise North Korea human rights programs by creating new government agencies and archives specifically designed for this purpose (in coordination with the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of Justice).
The US Congress, on the other hand, has enacted the North Korean Human Rights Act (USA) in 2004. Japan passed a 2005 North Korean Human Rights Act (Japan) (北朝鮮人権法), with particular focus on Japanese citizens abducted by the North Korean government.
South Korea is both uninterested and reticent towards adopting a NKHRA (I say a because there isn’t a definitive one yet).
Politicians from both the government and opposition parties fear that passing the act will anger the already irrational North Korean regime, who’ve been generously gifting us with military threats in recent years. Tensions grew with 3rd generation dicatator Kim Jong-Un’s arrival in 2011, culminating in a missile and nuclear threat. The situation reached its peak in April 2013, when Pyongyang warned foreigners to leave South Korea.
In 2013, the UN, through A/HRC/RES/22/13, created a Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea and designated Special Rapporteurs on the subject. So far, Pyongyang has declined to let in any investigators into their territory. They refuted the UN’s findings as a “conspiracy filled with lies, aiming to overthrow our nation”.
As North Korea’s immediate neighbour and target, South Korean politicians prefer to sweep things under the rug, in order to avoid any kind of dispute.
The public is generally uninterested. When my parents and I were young, we had mandatory “Unification Education” (it’s still part of basic education). During my parents’ time, the discourse went like this: We must free our poor, poor brothers and sisters from the Commis. They had contests for Best Unification Poster (/anti-Communism propaganda) at primary schools.
During my time, it’s more matter-of-factly. Unification is needed because Koreans are a single people. Now let us quiz you on North Korean vocabulary because we love multiple-choice questions (Due to differences in linguistic policy, South and North Korea have considerable discrepancies in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary).
But once South Koreans go off to university, find jobs and families, and in particular, after half the population complete their 2-year compulsory military service, the pro-unification thought instilled by the government wears off. Why should we care about people we don’t even know? Why should we go through what West Germany had to go through? Why is it our responsibility?
Added to this general disinterest is the ongoing economic recession and the refugee crisis in Europe – highlighting how accepting “different people”can fragment the fabric of society if not well prepared.
As of now, studies show that North Korean defectees are a vulnerable population – lower rates of finishing basic and higher education, lower-paying jobs, higher risk of being victims of crimes such as fraud, and in general, difficulty in adapting to a individualist capitalist society where one must fend for oneself entirely (think about the few choices North Korean citizens ever make in their lifetime – forced 10-year military service, widespread state propaganda, limited choices in goods and services, not to mention there really isn’t a state currency nor a banking system the people rely on).
It is strange to think that a nation which boasts its homogeneity is now putting their brethren aside as “different people”. But consider this: there are very few links that make us think we are one people anymore.
War-torn families (실향민, literally “people who have lost their home”) and their immediate relatives are dying. It’s been almost seventy years since we’ve been divided. Many people still hide the fact they’ve got relatives in North Korea, especially if these relatives defected back to North Korea, because of the repression they have (or would have if it were known) by the South Korean government during the not-so-democratic years of Syngman Rhee (1948–1960) and Park Chung-Hee (1962-1979) under the slogan “Dem Commies Must Die”(well, not exactly, but you get the gist).
The last time someone spoke about reunification in public that I can remember was in 2008, when I was still in high school. An Ethics teacher asked “How many of you think we should be reunified?”. Barely a handful out of a class of 30 students raised their hands. Well, we can’t generalise that response, after all, private prep schools aren’t known for children whose parents are particularly keen on paying more taxes.
But during my 9 semesters at university, not one professor or student has brought up the topic of North Korea or reunification – and I was a Political Science major.
At the moment of writing, I am in eastern Germany. Koreans are often taught about the German case – how West Germany embraced their fellow East Germans and agreed to pay higher taxes, about the West German struggle despite their status as one of the strongest and most stable economies in the world, about how we cannot possibly compare our case to Germany in equal terms. But the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 – and West Germans are still paying Solidarity taxes (Solidaritätszuschlag) – at 7.5% until 1997 and 5.5% until 2019. To which eastern Germans often complain that “we pay taxes so people in the East can have perfect roads for free, and look at us, have you seen our roads?”.
As per the Solidarpakt II (2004-2019), the states of Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt und Thüringen also benefit from the additional federal grants.
Koreans already pay very low tax rates – tax on personal income accounts for only 4% of the GDP, making it the third lowest rate in the OECD as of 2015 (higher only than the Slovak and Czech Republics). In comparison, the numbers stand at 13% in Belgium, 11% in the USA, and 9.5% in Germany. And Koreans, just like anyone else in the world, don’t want to pay any more, especially considering the 164% the average Korean has in household debt. It’s a question of practicality triumphing over sentiment, because there is too little of the latter by now.