[VIEWPOINT]Why the silence from Seoul?All human beings are born with dignity and rights; this is the basic concept of human rights. Human rights as a universal value are also called “individual sovereignty.” This year is the 10th anniversary of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna at which a declaration was adopted on making that concept of human rights the world standard.
There have been some remarkable achievements in human rights by the United Nations and human rights organization since the adoption of the Vienna Declaration. The concept of human rights has become so natural a matter of concern in the international community that no nation can stand on the principle of noninterference in domestic affairs to object to examination of their human rights regime. The UN Commission on Human Rights does exactly that and adopts resolutions that call for the correction of problems.
The European Union’s proposed resolution to censure North Korea because of its human rights violations was adopted by the UN group’s meeting in Geneva on Wednesday. South Korea did not participate in the voting despite the interest from the rest of the world. North Korea, and until recently Iraq, were the chief offenders against human rights among the nearly 200 nations of the world. After a quarter-century of relentless dictatorship, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq clearly demonstrates the inevitable end of such autocratic governments that infringe on human rights and terrorize their people.
Surprisingly indeed, the UN human rights group had never addressed the human rights situations in North Korea until this week, even though the regime there blatantly violates the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other international covenants. Even the most basic rights ― to freely choose their political leaders, to have freedom of conscience and religion, to freely leave and return to their own country ―are trampled upon.
As pointed out in the resolution submitted by the EU, many international human rights organizations and the world’s intellectuals have voiced their concern and criticism of “the present state of North Korea’s organized and widespread infringements.” Nevertheless, North Korea’s human rights situation had never attracted UN censure, partly due to the dualism of the sunshine policy pursued by the Kim Dae-jung administration. Despite the active attitude taken by international human rights organizations and their allies, particularly, the EU, South Korea has not only been passive in the discussion of the North Korean human rights for many years, but has also applied a double standard to other countries. It waived its rights in the procedures for the presentation of the resolution concerning China while participating as a co-sponsor of the UN censure resolution on Myanmar’s human right conditions.
Although the ever-worsening human right conditions of North Korean citizens are pressing issues about which we ourselves should do something, ironically enough, the louder voice of criticism and concern is heard from the outside world. While our government and National Assembly kept silent, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a resolution urging the protection of North Korean defectors last year, and strongly urged the Department of State this year to present the North Korean human right situation to the UN human rights commission. In alliance with international human rights organizations, domestic Korean human rights groups have also joined in global efforts to improve the conditions under which North Koreans live by raising human rights conditions in North Korea as international issues.
In our government’s North Korean policy, it is never an easy task to set the priority of the North Korean human rights issues and establish a position on the serious concerns expressed by the international community. Seoul must consider the impact of the issues on the North-South Korean political dialogue, especially on the nuclear problem.
Even so, that makes us complicit in the North Korean infringements on basic rights pointed out in the EU resolution. Those include organized and widespread infringements on human rights, the death penalty for political crimes, prison camps for political criminals, forced labor, illegal executions, persecutions of repatriated defectors, children’s malnutrition and infringements on women’s basic rights,
If we keep silent and do nothing but watch on the grounds of political considerations, that will create deep suspicion in the international community about our claims to be a liberal democracy that has policies to promote the protection of human rights.
* The writer is a former Korean Ambassador to the United Nations and a visiting professor at Seoul National University.
by Park Soo-gil