|Choi Seong-kuk, third from left, a North Korean defector who is a cartoonist and human rights activist here, speaks during a press conference in front of the Seoul Central District Court, Monday, before filing a defamation lawsuit against Unification Minister Lee In-young together with three other defectors. Screenshot from Mulmangcho's YouTube account|
By Jung Da-min
Four North Korean defectors are suing Unification Minister Lee In-young for defamation over his recent remarks which they claim treated defectors as "liars."
The four, with help from Mulmangcho, an organization that supports North Korean defectors adjust to life in the South, held a press conference in front of the Seoul Central District Court, Monday, to condemn the minister who said testimony from North Korean defectors needed verification and validation. They said Lee's remarks were no different from calling such testimony "untrustworthy lies."
During a press conference with foreign media in Seoul, Feb. 3, Lee was asked whether the unification ministry would disclose its records on North Korean human rights to the public. He responded: "The confirmation and verification process for records (of North Korean defectors' testimony on the human rights situation in the North) is still insufficient to see if the testimony is real or just based on unilateral claims (of the defectors)."
These remarks drew a strong backlash from defector communities here, which claimed Lee was not only defaming defectors calling them liars but also threatening the rights of defectors who came to the South to find freedom.
"The North Korean defectors who are suing Unification Minister Lee In-young, are people who suffered unimaginable human rights violations such as torture, violence, hunger and forced displacement in North Korea under the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un regimes before defecting from the North," read a statement from the defectors and Mulmangcho at the press conference.
"Since settling in the Republic of Korea, defectors have testified to the reality of the human rights violations they suffered; but the unification minister, who is responsible for protecting North Korean defectors and promoting human rights in North Korea, has publicly said the testimony of defectors needs verification, which is a serious case of defamation."
The four defectors shared their stories of suffering and witnessing human rights violations such as detention and torture, which often led to death, during the press conference.
"The minister said he needed to verify testimony from North Koreans, but how is he going to do this? Is he going to visit North Korea? If so, he should ask the North Korean authorities to show the real situation of the North Korean people ― not film sites made up by the North Korean authorities to showcase to foreigners ― to see the suffering of North Korean residents in labor and political prisoner camps," said Choi Seong-kuk, a defector who is now a cartoonist and a North Korean human rights activist, and one of the four participating in the suit.
|Unification Minister Lee In-young, right, participates in a plenary meeting of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, Monday. On his left is Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong. Yonhap|
The defectors said the minister's claim on the need for verification was absurd as North Korean defectors have shown consistency in describing the human rights violations in North Korea. They also said seeking verification of the testimony of North Korean defectors was no different from seeking verification of the testimony of surviving victims of Japan's wartime sexual slavery.
"The unification minister is the person who should recognize North Korean defectors as South Korean citizens and embrace their suffering, but I doubt if the minister and the ministry are aware of their role," said Kim Tae-hee, another defector taking part in the suit.
Ahead of their lawsuit, unification ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said during a regular press conference that the minister did not say that the testimony of North Korean defectors was unreliable or lies, and the minister and the ministry have a clear perception that their words were a "valuable record" to inform the government here and the international community of the human rights situation in North Korea. She added that the investigation and recording process for the defectors should be victim-centered.
"Based on such a principle, we've accumulated records and while doing so, we are confirming and verifying not only individual damage but also the North's systems and policies on human rights. During the process we are striving to increase the accuracy of records on North Korea's human rights issues," the spokeswoman said.