[VIEWPOINT]South should stop being silentU.S. President George W. Bush appointed on Aug. 19 Jay Lefkowitz, a lawyer, as his special envoy for North Korean human rights, a position created by the North Korean Human Rights Act.
According to the act, the purpose of the special envoy is to promote and coordinate efforts to improve the basic human conditions for North Koreans. The envoy is supposed to submit reports on his activities to Congress every year for the next five years. Mr. Lefkowitz will soon devise an action plan and visit South Korea, China and Japan. He will meet the special rapporteur of the UN commission on human rights to consult about strategy.
According to reports, Mr. Lefkowitz is ideologically close to neo-conservatives, has the strong confidence of President Bush and was recommended by Christian conservative forces for the appointment. So not a few people seem to voice their concerns about possible negative influence of his appointment on the resumption of the six-party talks.
But the background explanation by a high-ranking official at the State Department shows that the Bush administration has also sent a clear message to North Korea. The United States obviously made an effort to minimize media attention by announcing the appointment of the special envoy in late August, when Congress is in recess. This can be interpreted as the country’s sincere intention not to provoke North Korea. But the United States’ enforcement of the North Korean Human Rights Act, in whatever form, will clearly impose a tremendous burden on North Korea.
We need to recall North Korea’s strong resistance and the heated controversy over the pros and cons of the legislation in South Korea that had taken place before and after the North Korean Human Rights Act was enacted in October 2004. North Korea blasted the U.S. North Korean Human Rights Act as a declaration of war against North Korea, creating serious difficulties for the resolution of the nuclear problem, and some people in South Korea also opposed the new law, saying that it would become a threat to the North Korean regime.
Our government also expressed its discomfort with the North Korean Human Rights Act by making it clear that the human rights issue needs strategic approaches that depend on the situation of each country. It also believes the North Korean human rights conditions can be gradually and substantially improved in the process of realizing inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation.
Despite the United States’ “hostile policy” toward the country, North Korea finally had to return to the six-party talks in July and the enforcement of the North Korean Human Rights Act did not have a direct influence on North Korea’s stance toward the six-party talks. As the country has now reached a situation in which it cannot feed its people and maintain the Kim Jong-il regime without outside help, North Korea cannot help but try to widen the gap between South Korea and the United States in the name of national cooperation and rely on the promotion of its relations with South Korea.
It is quite natural that the international community should wonder why, despite this situation, South Korea still keeps silent on the North Korean human rights issue. South Korea believes in the universal value of human rights mainly because of our reverence for human dignity that transcends races, nationalities and political ideologies or regional and cultural traits. If we turn away from the difficult human rights conditions of North Koreans on the grounds that we see them as part of our people, South Korea will lose the justification and morality to intervene in human rights abuses in other countries.
The report in which South Korea decided to officially raise the issue of abducted South Koreans in North Korea and prisoners of war in the inter-Korean Red Cross talks is worth welcoming in that it suggests changes in the development of our human rights policy toward North Korea.
At this point when the United States appoints the North Korean human rights special envoy through the implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act and pursues a dialogue on human rights with the North along with the European Union, we cannot understand why, despite these developments, our government looks away from the international community’s effort to improve North Korean human rights conditions and sticks to its passive human rights policy toward North Korea.
The 21st century is an age of human security and the sovereign right of individuals. Today, the international trend is that the international human rights law has precedence over all other laws. This means that we should boldly question the human rights problem in North Korea with a more active and consistent policy and strengthen international cooperation through the United Nations.
* The writer is the president of the United Nations Association of the Republic of Korea and a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Soo-gil