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South Korea and Human Rights in North Korea
by Kwon Hyok-chol; Hankyoreh 21; May 06, 2003
[Editor’s Note: On April 16, the U.N. Commission of Human Rights adopted a censure against North Korea by a vote of 28 to 10, with 14 abstentions. Among the 14 absentees was South Korea . The government’s official explanation was that the South does not want to further alienate the North from the international community. While they don’t want to line up with the EU and the US, which lambasted the North over human rights at the U.N. session while letting Russia and China slip on the issue, much of South Korean civil society is increasingly frustrated with the lack of a comfortable position regarding the poor human rights situation in the northern half of the peninsula. In a carefully worded article, Kwon Hyok-chol insists that the time has come for Korean civil society to take a stand. By Kap Su Seol
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In Greek mythology, Pandora’s box is a prolific source of woes that is better to remain sealed. As Pandora’s box is to mythology, human rights in North Korea are to South Korean civil society.

Civil society groups admit that the human rights situation in North Korea is a problem. A human rights activist said on condition of anonymity, “Seen in universally accepted terms, the human rights condition in the North is a big mess.” “We will probably have to take issue with the inadequate level of judiciary independence in the North, and its legal system, which punishes family members of criminals,” he continued, “while we admit such exemplary institutions as free medical care and free education exist side by side.”

However, they shun publicly raising the issue of North Korean human rights. That’s because the cold war dichotomy of “either pro-North or anti-North” is still alive and kicking in this country. Making an issue of the North’s human rights tends to translate into an attempt to cover up the South’s own social contradictions, while pointing to social ills in the South tends to end in an unintended invitation to red-baiting. Political expediency, driven by Cold War rationale, besets the flow of rational debate about North Korea ‘s human rights.

Most civil society groups are still stalled in the stage of sorting out how to see the issue. Members of what claims to be progressive groups shy away from commenting on North Korean human rights, citing reasons such as “there is little objective information available,” “taking a position about it won’t help North-South reconciliation,” or “it can be exploited by far-right conservatives.”

The dilemma is manifest even within the National Human Rights Commission, a government human rights watchdog. Chang-kuk Kim, its president, said on April 17, “I know well about the human rights situation in North Korea through human rights reports by the U.S. state department and information from North Korean defectors.” “This is a very sensitive issue,” Mr. Kim added and then, “Because there has been little debate about it within the commission, I found it very awkward to respond to the inquiries asked of me at a legislation-judiciary committee session of the National Assembly.” He added, “The commission has yet to consider taking an official position regarding North Korean human rights.”

The issue of human rights in North Korea is a compressed mass of contradictions of world history. Within the debate, universality and particularity, the two philosophical notions, collide: nationalism and cosmopolitanism confront each other; opposing analyses of North Korea emerge; the Cold War ideological struggle continues; and the rivalry between political factions in the South intensifies as they use policy toward the North as a sub-variable in the South’s political equation.

While all this has brought it to a virtual stalemate at home, the debate about human rights in North Korea rages on abroad.

With a resolution adopted at the U.N. Commission of Human Rights on April 16 calling for the improvement of human rights in the North, more intense international pressure will likely be brought upon the country. The human rights situation in the North will be placed under scrutiny by the Office of U.N. Human Rights Commissioner and other international rights agencies. And it will be automatically presented as a priority agenda item at the next session of the commission.

The U.N. commission’s resolution, coupled with recent moves to take the North Korean nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council, points to a possibility that the international community will give the same weight to the security and human rights issues regarding the North. In line with this, there have been postures that the trilateral talks of the U.S. , China and North Korea should deal with human rights concerns.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Carl Gershman, president of National Endowment for Democracy, said, “While multilateral talks may follow, it would be a mistake if they were to focus exclusively on settling the nuclear issue. The security crisis can never be resolved in any lasting way without addressing the heart of the problem: the terrible crimes the North Korean regime is committing against its own people.” He continued, “Multilateral talks offer an unprecedented opportunity to place the issue of human rights in North Korea on the international agenda.”

Political posturing to lump human rights in North Korea and its weapons of mass destruction into a single package can also be seen in President Bush’s Jan. 28 State of the Union Address, in which he said, “On the Korean peninsula, an oppressive regime rules a people living in fear and starvation.…We now know that the regime was deceiving the world and developing those weapons all along.”

In the weeks leading up to the Beijing trilateral talks, the U.S. , resorting to harsh language, stepped up criticism of the North over human rights. Jeane Kirkpatrick, head of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, said on April 1 in a statement, “It is hard to imagine the possibility of a country whose citizens endure a worse or more pervasive abuse of every human right. This aspect coupled with the dire famine conditions afflicting North Korea , makes it truly a Hell on earth.” She demanded the U.N. commission confront Pyongyang over what she called an abominable rights record.

In a 2002 annual human rights report published on March 31, the state department said: “There [in North Korea ] continued to be reports of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. Citizens were detained arbitrarily, and many were held as political prisoners.”

Pyongyang denounces the criticisms as interference in domestic politics, insisting on adherence to its own principals of human rights. And it makes attempts on its own to come clean of the accusations.

In a 1998 revision of the criminal law, the government reduced the number of charges carrying the death penalty to 5 from 33. It increased the minimum age in its death-penalty statute to 18 from 17. In the reformed constitution of 1995, the right to freedom to residence and movement was stipulated. In 2001, the Pyongyang government turned in a report to the U.N. commission, the first such submission by the North in 16 years, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This represents an effort by North Korea to take part in the international human rights system.

Concerning the debate itself, not only the human rights situation, but also human rights as a universal value remain the point of contention. The belief that all humans are entitled to universal rights is sometimes naïve to the point that despite its moral appeal, it is susceptible to categorical, historical, or political critique.

The French jurist Karel Vasak coined three generations of human rights. The first generation of civil and political rights includes the right to liberty freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The second generation of economic, social, and cultural rights consists of the right to work, the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of self and family, and the right to education. The third generation of solidarity rights includes the right to political, economic, social, and cultural self-determination, and the right to economic and social development.

While Europe and the U.S. focus on the first generation that conceives human rights in passive terms, developing and socialist countries consider the second and third generations more essential. There is tension inherent to human rights debate over the definition of their notion, and it offers the point of contention in the issue of not only North Korean but also Chinese human rights.

Since the Tiananmen incident of 1989, the US has attempted to put China on the agenda of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and China has worked hard to stop it. In a report about successful Chinese diplomatic efforts to stop the U.N. Human Rights Commission to censure the country, the international rights group Human Rights Watch concluded that Western countries’ attitudes toward human rights in China were merely hypocritical as Germany and France succumbed to the economic lures China offered.

In his book International Human Rights, Jack Donnelly, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the University of Denver , said the U.S. subordinated human rights to the Cold War until 1989. He argued that the U.S. confused the pursuit of freedom and human rights with anticommunism. Into the 1990s, the U.S. spread and deepened its interest in international human rights concerns

What is the backdrop against the US frequently tilting at the issue of North Korean human rights? Officially, Washington would say that human rights are universal values that should be protected anytime and anywhere, and that the situation in the North is more than terrible. But this one-size-fits-all answer is not convincing. Rather, it makes more sense that the U.S. is attempting to gain the upper hand in the nuclear showdown with North Korea , and that it is attempting to press the North with human rights issues.

Speculation has risen that the U.S. would go on to further ratchet up pressure on North Korea after its overwhelming victory in Iraq . “It is possible that the Bush administration raises the issue of North Korean human rights situation in a preemptive maneuver to use it as a card in the negotiation with the North,” one government official opined on condition of anonymity.

“One needs to carefully examine a series of remarks the U.S. has made in terms of an extension of the logic that it has liberated Iraq,” Lee Sang Hyun, researcher at the Sejong Institute, said at a conference. “It appears that the U.S. is gradually increasing pressure to create an international mood for a regime change in the North.”

Indeed, some rights advocates in the South are raising concerns that the U.S. could use human rights as an instrument to threaten peace on the Korean peninsula. The uneasiness was epitomized in a statement by Human Rights Sarangbang, a prominent rights organization, regarding the U.N, censure against the North: “It raises grave concerns that the U.N. Human Rights Commission adopted a resolution that the U.S. could use as a pretext to invade North Korea at a time when it has illegitimately occupied Iraq and when the threats of war clouds the Korean peninsula.” It went on to say, “It does not appear impossible that the U.S., which has been pressing the North by branding it as an axis of evil, will use the resolution to start war on the peninsula….As confirmed in the war in Iraq, it is not impossible that the U.S. will acclaim itself as the liberator again and turn the peninsula into a bloody theater of war.”

Oh Chang-ik, director of Citizens’ Solidarity for Human Rights, a right group, said, “While we have to see the situation of human rights in North Korea as it is, this issue has to date been used politically.” “Doesn’t it mean that you should calmly look at human rights in the North as they are if you think of the issue as something of Pandora’s box?” he asked. Mr. Oh concluded: “You must first eat and make a living before you exercise civil and political rights and enjoy cultural rights. It is preposterous for [the U.S. ] to press the North over human rights after its economic sanctions wrought damage on the basic condition of livelihood [in the North].”

Some political forces are criticized for using North Korean human rights to advance their political interest. In a statement it released on April 17 about the government’s abstention to the vote on the North Korea censure at the U.N. rights commission, the conservative Grand National Party said, “the government’s abstention was excessively irresponsible and cowardly.” On April 19, regarding press reports that the North is in the process of reprocessing plutonium rods, the party said: “The government must stop whatsoever aid to the North until it takes a clear measure to respect the South as its dialogue counterpart.”

In related development, Good Friends Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees, a refugee advocacy group, said in a position statement of April 18 that the right to subsistence and human rights should be addressed simultaneously in the North. It said: “what matters most to those starving and sick is survival itself. Any efforts to improve human rights won’t be felt through the country without addressing food shortages.”

As for political exploitation of the issue of North Korean human rights, Benjamin Yoon, representative of Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights quipped, “The far-right has to date capitalized on the issue excessively.” He added, “It was difficult to get a clear grasp of the human rights situation in the North in the early 1990s. Beginning the mid-1990s, the testimonies by close to 4,000 North Korean defectors almost corroborated the findings by international agencies and civic groups.” Mr. Yoon concluded, “Political ideology aside, you must not look the other way when the truth about North Korean human rights has begun to surface.”

Han Ki-hong, the Network for North Korean Human Rights and Democracy said, “To see human rights and politics as a single entity is far-fetched, to separate human rights from politics is just naïve.” “Some asked me what the point is in raising an issue of North Korean human rights,” he continued. “When it became an international issue, it prompted improvements in the North. Authorities reduced the number of public executions and softened the punishment for those who defect the country for economic reasons.”

As far as the issue of North Korean human rights goes, South Korean progressives have been avoiding it, conservatives have been taking advantage of it, and the North government has dismissed it. All in all, this put the two Koreas , the two first parties, on the sidelines in the current international debate about North Korean human rights.

Just as the idea of a preemptive strike on North Korean nuclear facilities floats in the White House in Washington , skirting the South Korean government’s control, it is increasingly likely that the issue of North Korean human rights will serve a factor in U.S. global strategy, regardless of the will of the two Koreas . And this is really why South Korean civil-society groups and political forces need to put their bias aside and take the bull by the horn to address the issue head-on.

Mr. Kown, Hyok-chol is staff writer at Hankyoreh 21, an independent weekly news magazine in South Korea .

Originally published in the April 24, 2003 issue of Hankyereh 21.