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South Korean Experts Praise Recently Published North Korean Laws

South Korean legal experts say North Korea hopes to show the international community it is evolving into a society protected by the rule of law. A recently published code of laws, which - at least on paper - offers North Korean citizens enhanced civil liberties and property rights.

North Korea has published its first code of laws since the country began experimenting with market reforms.

The "Code of Laws of the Democratic Republic of Korea" rolled off North Korean presses last August. It includes revamped official North Korean policy on property and criminal law enforcement.

Under the new code, security officers are mandated to obtain warrants before arresting criminal suspects. The code says suspects can no longer be questioned overnight, and sets a limit on the amount of time a suspect may be detained without a formal indictment.

The laws also allow for personal property to be passed from one generation to the next, including money, small appliances, houses and automobiles.

Professor Lee Jang-Hie is the president of the Korean Branch of the International Law Association. He is one of many South Korean legal experts praising the new code of laws as a step forward by Pyongyang.

"This is a very good start," he said. "It means, gradually, they would like to make a symbol for legalism - rule of law."

Professor Lee says the legal changes are part of a larger pattern of change driven by necessity.

"North Korea is changing very drastically," he said. "Not only in the criminal law, but in the Constitution, civil law, investment law, trade law… why? …Economic [pragmatism].

Pyongyang's hope, say experts, probably is that publishing the laws will buff North Korea's international image, and attract investment. About half of the 112 new laws deal with economic matters, including damage liability and licensing of small businesses.

The state of North Korea's economy has plummeted since leader Kim Jong Il assumed power from his father, the late Kim Il Sung, in 1994.

The World Food Program recently reported North Korea has reduced the basic daily ration of food to just 250 grams a day per person - half the minimum daily nutritional required. The reduction is expected to be in effect until at least June, and comes after years of near-famine conditions.

Many economists say attracting hard currency to buy food is the country's only way back to economic health.

To do that, North Korea introduced limited market reforms in 2002. Experts say hundreds of small markets have appeared in the North since then and cross-border trade with China has increased.

Professor Nam Sung-wook, who specializes in North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul says the new code shows that the North is coming to grips with an emerging entrepreneurial class.

"The government can't control individual properties," he said. "And the North Korean government accepts the situation. In the old days [the government said] 'money does not matter.' However, nowadays, money is important to contribute to the country's survival."

The laws lay the groundwork for a prospective North Korean software industry by spelling out guarantees for intellectual property. They also promise punishment for those guilty of trafficking drugs, counterfeit money or obscene sexual material.

Skeptics of the new laws say, symbolism aside, North Korea remains one of the world's worst violators of human rights. They point out the judiciary has no independence from the Communist Party and the government of Kim Jong-Il.

Thousands of North Koreans are believed to be held in harsh prison camps, many of them simply because a family member was accused of committing a political crime, such as expressing opposition to the government.

Kim Sang-Hyun, a human rights activist in Seoul, says the legal changes are purely cosmetic.

"Law does not mean very much in North Korea as it does elsewhere in the world. They believe that the law is very far away," he said. "Your fist is just so close."

Professor Lee of the Law Association admits North Korea needs to do more, but says progress comes in small steps. He says it is significant that the laws were made available to the North Korean public in the first place - and he believes the precedent they set is irreversible.

"The change has begun in North Korea already, no turning back," he said. "No possibility."

What many North Korea watchers do agree on is that leader Kim Jong-Il is caught in a dilemma: between the need to liberalize and revive North Korea's economy, and the need to preserve his own government's survival by maintaining tight state control.