[OUTLOOK]Human rights, by any nameThe Chuseok holiday this year was a holiday of anguish as much as it was a holiday of fun. Not only were the hearts of families getting together heavy with worries for the country, but there were probably a lot of Korean people worrying about making a steady living.
Nevertheless, going back to one’s hometown, getting together with families and meeting elders are all part of the warmth of Chuseok that probably allowed us all to confirm once again the importance of family and the people around us, no matter how hard the circumstances we are in.
Up until now, we seem to have put too much emphasis on the importance of national security. In the meantime we seem to have been comparatively negligent about “human security.” People can live proudly only when they have their own country.
If the most basic conditions for a human being to live humanly are destroyed, the country finds itself in a legitimacy crisis and societies get caught up in confusion and disruption. That is the problem of failed countries.
International groups, including the United Nations, recently started to stress the importance of human security.
This is the result of a self-awakening that human society will fall into deeper instability and unhappiness if basic welfare standards of human beings are not met and freedom from various types of oppression are not secured even in the wave of globalization and the information age. But in Korea there is, surprisingly, no interest among people nor any measure on the national level to secure human security.
We are a nation that is recognized by all as a country that has succeeded in national security, democratization and industrialization, even though it had to go through the hardships of the Cold War and national division. However, a lot of sacrifices and bad side effects came along with this success, and we are still paying the painful price of our success.
The undue sacrifices that had to be made in the process of a fierce struggle between the North and the South and the fight for democratization, and the imbalance in the amount of sweat and effort made for industrialization and the unfair distribution of profits from it, all still remain in the hearts of our people as resentments that will not fade away easily.
The most urgent human security issue that needs to be dealt with in our society that trembles with worries over an unstable economy is the big distinction between the rich and the poor.
Most important is the problem of absolute poverty and how to construct a social security net to guarantee that Koreans can lead a life that meets basic human conditions.
Many people expected the president and the ruling party that came into power holding high banners of liberal politics and reform to put more emphasis on tasks for securing human security than on those for national security.
But the government tried to push policies in all different directions at once. As a result, it failed to give priority not only to urgent economic problems but also to human security. The minister of welfare, Kim Keun-tae, can be taken as an example of this situation.
Minister Kim was appointed to head the Ministry of Health and Welfare after many turns and twists. After assuming the post, he emphasized that solving welfare problems is necessary to unifying the people. He even dared to make such extreme remarks as “If revision of the National Pension Act is further delayed, it could result in the collapse of the government and society.”
But the president and the government party have not shown any willingness to give human security issues, including welfare, the most urgent priority. Nor is there any effort to pay heed to the leadership of Mr. Kim.
The ruling circles rather seem to be continuously diverting power and resources to issues that are less important than the welfare of the people, and this is making people nervous.
Human security also needs to be considered when planning North-South Korean relations. The reason why we want to promote national unification through construction of a national community is because securing welfare conditions for all Korean people is of principal importance. Unification is definitely our nation’s dream and ultimate goal.
But what is urgent now is cooperation between the North and the South so that the level of welfare of North Korean residents is improved to a standard that satisfies the basic condition needed for maintaining a humane life. If there is an extreme allergic reaction on the part of the North Korean system to the word “human rights,” this word does not necessarily have to be used. However, the human rights issue does not disappear by avoiding the use of the term.
The practice of avoiding talking about the issue of human rights in a broad sense just because it can create an obstruction to inter-Korean talks is becoming less acceptable domestically and internationally. It would be wise for us, taking this opportunity, to shine a light on the issue of North Korean human rights, including the welfare of our fellow North Korean people, as part of our historical task of securing human security.
We cannot afford to delay the issue of human security any further, neither for the North nor for the South.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor of the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo
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