Press reports say several hundred residents in Sinuiju, a North Korean city on the border with China, clashed with security forces on Feb. 18 over the death of a merchant during a police crackdown on a market. On Feb. 14, small protests reportedly broke out in three northeastern cities of the impoverished country over fuel and food shortages.
Are these signs that the “Jasmine Revolution” that started in the Middle East has reached North Korea? Rep. Park Sun-young, the spokeswoman of the minor opposition Liberty Forward Party, predicted in a comment on Monday that “come April, the Jasmine Revolution would arrive in the frozen land of the North.”
Noting the street demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai staged following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Park asserted the emergence of a pro-democracy movement in the North, which is under the strong influence of China, is only a matter of time. “North Korea cannot avoid it, however much it may try to by seeking a third nuclear weapons test or another aggression against the South.”
We hope her prediction comes true. But in reality, there is every reason to discount the possibility of an uprising for democratization taking place in the North. In the first place, most North Koreans probably remain unaware of the revolutions in the Middle East.
Even if they get information on the events, that does not necessarily mean they would stand up against their leaders. To confront the oppressive dictatorship, they first need to have some understanding of democracy and basic human rights. Furthermore, they have little room to maneuver because of a tight security system.
The heavy odds stacked against a democratic movement spontaneously emerging in the North ― despite the strong storm of democratization coming from the Arab World ― are exactly the reason why South Korea should step up efforts to help North Korean people access outside information and open their eyes to the reality around them.
A good starting point for the efforts in this direction is to dust off a bill introduced last year to promote the human rights of the North Korean people. The legislation passed the National Assembly’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification in February 2010. But it has since been put on hold due to objection by the lawmakers of the main opposition Democratic Party on the Legislation-Judiciary Committee.
The main reason for their opposition to the bill is that it would provoke North Korea. But this reason makes little sense. While the bill was left pending, the North attacked the South twice last year ― torpedoing the Cheonan warship in March and shelling Yeonpyeong Island in November. These two unwarranted hostile acts made the DP’s objection to the bill totally untenable.
The bill calls for the establishment of a foundation devoted to improving the human rights situation in North Korea, the appointment of a North Korean human rights ambassador, the launching of an archive to investigate, collect and record human rights abuses in North Korea, and support for activities by North Korean human rights groups in the South and overseas.
It is a shame that South Korea still has no law on North Korean human rights while the United States and Japan have. As such, lawmakers should no longer delay the passage of the bill. They should heed the call for prompt action from the 25 organizations formed by defectors from the North. These groups held a joint news conference on Monday to urge the lawmakers to pass the bill. They said the bill, if enacted, would help their efforts to awaken North Korean people to their reality and the outside world. Such efforts can be a step to pressure North Korean leaders to change the way they treat their people.