[OUTLOOK]Let's Discuss the North's Rights Record

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[OUTLOOK]Let's Discuss the North's Rights Record

We were delighted at the breath of fresh air brought to inter-Korean relations by Goran Persson. The Swedish prime minister, leading a European Union delegation to Pyongyang in early May, raised the sticky issue of human rights with Kim Jong-il. Although Mr. Kim did not respond, North Korea and the EU agreed to talk about the issue.

Unfortunately, the event was eclipsed by the news that Mr. Kim promised to maintain Pyongyang's missile test moratorium until 2003 and that Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il's eldest son, attempted to enter Japan on a forged passport.

The courage and sound judgment of Mr. Persson are worthy of respect. It was the first time a non-Korean has mentioned human rights issues in front of North Korea's National Defense Commission chairman. Even U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who emphasized the primary importance of human rights issues in other countries, left the issue off the agenda when she visited Pyongyang last year. Because the subject had never been broached with the North, we can imagine what a sensitive step it was. Mr. Persson knew this. Then what made him take that step? And why did the North Korean leader allow it to happen? The South Korean government and people must ask these questions and reconsider the importance of this issue in the context of future approaches to the North.

I would like to underscore this point, because over the past few years those that have spoken up about the North's systematic abuse of human rights have often been chastised into silence and accused of harming the prospects for national unification. Yet, infringements of human rights under the dictatorships in the South are always revealed and punished - as they should be. This points to an unhealthy double standard. Our government repatriated long-term prisoners who continued to give allegiance with North Korea, but did not put demands for information about South Korean prisoners of war or kidnap victims of the North on a par with our release. Those who point out human rights problems are accused of clinging to a Cold Warrior mentality.

The National Intelligence Service confirmed that a Korean living in Germany was a member of the North Korean politburo but allowed him to continue writing columns for a domestic newspaper. In this atmosphere, does the North even need to rely on its spies for information any more? Yun Isang, a celebrated Korean composer who lived in Germany, was asked in 1988 why he criticized South Korea but remained silent about the North. I still vividly remember him saying, "North Korea is not under a dictatorship but is a totalitarian state. Therefore, I cannot make a public criticism." This influential figure in the world of contemporary music repeatedly emphasized, "I am a pure nationalist with no hint of political color." Yet he still protected the North. People who argue the North must be exempted from criticism for the smooth progress of reunification are too eager to protect this Stalinist state. There may have been actions taken in the aftermath of the Korean War that were ethically questionable but unavoidable, and we have to allow that the heat of war prompted some military or government excesses. It is not right to accuse such self-defensive actions of the military and police forces as "barbarous brutality," while human rights in the North and the question of the fate of kidnapped South Korean civilians are simply ignored.

Mr. Persson must have raised the thorny issue with the North Korean leader in the knowledge that only by sharing his concerns and hearing the North's can their relations progress. Mr. Kim probably accepted the initiative in order to hint to the world that the North is changing. In inter-Korean relations, true reconciliation and cooperation will begin only when the two countries deal maturely with all issues of concern. Only then will South Koreans truly embrace the North.


The writer is associate director of the Unification Research Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Sioux Lee

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