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The South Korean government is targeting activist organizations that focus on North Korea’s human rights problems for special review in an apparent effort to intimidate them, Human Rights Watch said today. Tensions between the South Korean government and some activists sharpened significantly after North Korea’s leaders threatened retaliation because some groups sent leaflets across the border that strongly criticized North Korea’s human rights record and leadership.

The Unification Ministry informed groups focused on North Korea’s human rights issues, or on the integration of North Koreans in South Korea, that they must comply with abrupt review deadlines and burdensome documentary requirements, and face possible office inspections. The sudden decision to review the registration status of all such groups is unprecedented. Other groups registered with the ministry that conduct activities centered on development or humanitarian assistance have not been subjected to such demands.

“The South Korean government should halt this targeted campaign of regulatory intimidation against civil society groups,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “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.”

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 organizations at the Ministry of Unification.

”Organizations whose primary mission is charitable activity concerning North Korea must register with the Ministry of Unification. On July 20, the South Korean government sent notice of an administrative review of the registrations to all 64 nongovernmental groups registered with the Unification Ministry as “non-profit private organizations” that are working on North Korean human rights or supporting efforts to assist North Koreans who have made their way to South Korea to adapt to life there.

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