[OUTLOOK]A duty to uphold human rightsThe international human rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch, or HRW, expressed serious concerns about North Korea’s human rights problems in its annual report on Jan. 13, saying, “North Korea is unreasonably violating almost all international human rights standards on a daily basis.”
Of course, the group did mention about 60 countries in the report, highlighting Iraqi prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. soldiers as one of the worst cases of human rights violations.
Human rights are one of the most important standards that are highly regarded by all free world countries and progressive groups. Yet because we are a divided nation, Korea has a tendency to think that aiding North Korea is progressive and attacking the anti-human rights policy of North Korea is conservative.
Even taking the division of the Korean Peninsula into consideration, this is a very wrong dichotomy. Putting both conservatism and progressiveness aside, the prevention of a sudden fall of the North Korean system, which could turn into a disaster for all of Northeast Asia, and aid to give the country a soft landing needs to continue.
If we do not continue such efforts, it will be hard to rid ourselves of criticism that our reconciliation and cooperation policy toward North Korea is an arbitrary interpretation of the universal value of mankind and a narrow-minded collusion between the South and North Koreas for political purposes. This is because the issue of human rights is already considered in international society an issue of universal value to human beings rather than simply a problem of inter-Korean cooperation.
It was after World War II that the human rights issue became a major subject of interest in international society. And since the end of the Cold war, it has been seen as a universal value of the human race that transcends national boundaries.
Attempts to protect individuals or groups internationally from human rights violations within a country collides with the traditional idea of national sovereignty. However, as we have seen in Kosovo, Iraq and Somalia, the rule of non-intervention in domestic affairs is losing its ground nowadays.
Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, like HRW played a big role in making such new international norms. NGOs also played a leading role in helping the international human rights activities of the United Nations.
Therefore, the group’s report received a lot of attention from international society, and it also provided a chance to re-examine the role and importance of specialist NGOs. Due to speedy globalization and the development of communication and information, international society in large part no longer acts according to the result of meetings that are attended only by the representatives of leading countries or according to international organizations led by the governments of such countries.
That is why our nation, which aims to be a leading democracy in the 21st century, needs to think hard about what actions to take on the new core issue of international politics like the human rights violations of the North Korean people. South Korea once attracted the attention of international society because of human rights violations. Nevertheless, we overcame a history of oppression and successfully created a thriving democracy.
Therefore, South Korea can play a leading role in bringing about reconciliation between Northeast Asia, where human rights protection lags behind economic development, and international society. South Korea can also help in developing human rights where they are lacking.
China is still a country where human rights protection is less developed according to international standards, and Japan is a purportedly developed country that refuses to self-examine its past violations of human rights. Therefore, South Korea needs to acknowledge, instead of avoiding, the North Korean human rights problem as one of the key issues facing Northeast Asia, and make active efforts to solve it.
Peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia cannot be accomplished with just economic or political cooperation. The expansion of universal values such as human rights is absolutely necessary, and since we have the problem of North Korea, South Korea should play a leading role.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Soh Chang-rok