[INSIGHT]Time for human rights action

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[INSIGHT]Time for human rights action

The murder case of Susie Kim, which was covered up to appear to be an attempted kidnapping to North Korea, stirs up not only anger but also feelings of shame among Koreans. Government officials who called the homicide "an attempt to kidnap a Korean resident overseas" for their own political interests provoke public outrage. Seeing the pain of the surviving family of Susie Kim makes us feel ashamed that we are not free from guilt; we have cast stones at a victim.

In Korea in the past, a person could not live a normal life if a close relative was suspected of being a spy for the North. Even a middle school student would be bullied or beaten at school if a close relative was labeled a spy. The wife of a culprit's brother suffered from finger-pointing and whispering of people who blamed her for her in-law's spying. Most people were so fearful of being accused of being spies that they tried to prove their innocence by turning in other people. The military dictatorship and its successors were aided by the prejudice and ignorance of the public and could conceal and distort the truth about Susie Kim's murder.

Has the situation improved 14 years after the initial investigation? Military dictatorships passed into history nine years ago, but the situation does not seem to have improved much. Last year the police who reopened the case decided to cover it up at the request of the National Intelligence Service.

The attitudes of Japan and Western countries toward confronting their past wrongdoings differ greatly. Japanese live up to their old saying, "The past flows away like water." Probably because of Japanese influence, a majority of Koreans seem to think that investigation into past problems is unproductive.

But judging which attitude is right and more productive becomes clearer when one looks into how Western nations decided how to deal with their previous misdeeds. Germany is acting upon the saying, "The past will be remembered but forgiven," and has acknowledged its past and asked forgiveness. But the Japanese are shirking from their mistakes, justifying their inaction by saying that nothing can turn back the clock. Delving into the past is not only for revenge, but also for forgiveness. As a theologian, Donald W. Shriver, said, "True forgiveness begins from the memory and moral judgements on what is wrong, unjust and unfair."

In that perspective, the whole affair of Susie Kim's murder must be revealed. The current investigation is focusing not just on how investigators attempted to cover up the case last year, but to obtain justice and to learn a lesson, the truth about the alleged attempts to cover up the case in 1987 must be brought to light.

Many people think that the time limits for the cover-up attempts in 1987 have already expired, but a report by the United Nations Executive Committee on Economic and Social Affairs in August 1998 clearly states that there are no statutes of limitations for investigations that look into crimes that seriously debase a person's dignity.

There are other things we have to look into. What is the meaning of last year's concealment of the case, which was done with such ease? The incident implies that the flawed system and customs that lead to the concealment and manipulation of the truth behind the homicide 14 years ago continue to exist. That faulty system and those customs must be eliminated. An attempt to unearth the truth about the case should be the prelude of a massive project to repair our faulty political system. In that way, digging into the truth will be more than just an opportunity for the victims to get some measure of satisfaction; it could help firmly establish justice and human rights.

There are still many practices in Korea that infringe on human rights, such as the limitations on an accused person's rights to have an attorney and the widespread use of wiretapping against citizens. We still have problems of brutality during the questioning of suspects, which goes unchecked if it does not happen to trigger a scandal. The National Security Law is also still untouched. All these are parts of the rampant immoral practices in Korea that have not disappeared.

President Kim Dae-jung, who was imprisoned by the military government and had many bitter experiences, spoke frequently of his antagonism toward the bad practices in Korea that infringe on human rights. But measures to improve the regulations concerning human rights are not progressing as fast as expectations demand. The president should comprehensively overhaul the legal system to improve human rights. That is a task befitting a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and "human rights president." President Kim's term in office is not over yet.


The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yu Seung-sam

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