[NOTEBOOK]Taking a stand on human rights

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[NOTEBOOK]Taking a stand on human rights

The U.S. Cultural Center in Seoul was located next to City Hall in 1985. I met Hahn Hwa-kap, current chairman of the Democratic Party, and former lawmaker Park Chong-ung for the first time when they were sitting side by side in front of the office of an information officer of the cultural center.
At that time, they were the respective personal secretaries of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam, who were joint chairmen of the Democratization Promotion Committee. Kim Dae-jung was under house arrest after returning from the United States and Kim Young-sam was spearheading the anti-dictatorship struggle after ending a fast.
The reason why the two Kims sent their secretaries not to the U.S. Embassy but to the U.S.I.S. was because they wanted to hear news about the support for their democratization move from foreign governments and organizations and to let the outside world know about their activities. After all, democratization and human rights are not inviolable internal affairs but the common task of the human race.
When Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped in Tokyo in August 1973, he avoided a burial at sea thanks to the pressure of the U.S. government. When Mr. Kim was sentenced to death under the Chun Doo Hwan government, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan saved the life of Mr. Kim on the condition that Mr. Reagan met with Mr. Chun personally when the latter visited Washington.
When Kim Young-sam fasted for 23 days in protest against the Chun Doo Hwan administration, local newspapers could carry a report that only referred vaguely to “the eating problem of an opposition leader” in a corner of the newspaper, but the administration’s overbearing methods were made known internationally through the foreign press.
Kim Young-sam’s interview with the New York Times in 1979, in which he criticized the Park Chung Hee administration, provided a momentum that led to the termination of his status as a representative, dismissal from the presidency of his own party, a popular uprising in Busan and Masan in South Gyeongsang province and ultimately to the assassination of President Park on Oct. 26. This is how much we are indebted to the forces of conscience overseas for the development of our democracy and human rights.
However, the way South Korea addresses the problem of North Korean human rights nowadays is disappointing. There are some forces that even try to criticize talking about North Korean human rights as “conservatism.” Democracy fighters who were revitalized in the past by one small article in a foreign newspaper are now trying hard to evade the human rights and democratization problems of our fellow North Koreans. They are even repeatedly abstaining from a vote for the adoption of a UN resolution on North Korean human rights. Both left- and right-wing politicians are guilty of making use of the hardship of our brethren in the North for their political purposes.
North Korean authorities asked South Korea for 60 million pairs of shoes. They also ordered 20,000 tons of soap and 30,000 tons of clothes. The tragic appearance of North Korean children who walk on the icy cold ground in straw sandals or parts of used tires as shoes, or even go barefoot in search of food, stabs our hearts like a cold, sharp icicle. The remark of Unification Minister Chung Dong-young, that “Giving fertilizer to the North so that North Korean residents don’t have to leave the country is a way to improve the human rights situation in North Korea,” seems to be out of sympathy toward such a pitiful situation there.
There are people who criticize it as economic logic and interference in North Korea’s domestic affairs, but that is what we heard a lot of back in the days of the Park Chung Hee administration. Such logic does not fit a democratization force that shouted anti-U.S. slogans because Washington tolerated a coup d’etat. We cannot tacitly approve such intolerable human rights violations as cutting peoples’ ankles, stoning people to death and molesting them sexually, only because it is urgent to save North Korean residents from starvation.
The claim that we have to appease our dialogue partner is also disgraceful because it sounds as if one is suggesting ignoring the sacrifice of North Koreans for our own safety. Moreover, the repatriation of South Koreans kidnapped to the North is a constitutional obligation of the South Korean government, which must protect its nationals. Why does Kim Jong-il, chairman of the North Korean Defense Committee, not even acknowledge the existence of South Korean abductees, although he had already apologized for the kidnapping of Japanese people?
How can we find a solution to the problem when the government is tepid and the majority of politicians are squabbling according to their political tactics?
How would the democracy fighters around the Roh Moo-hyun administration have felt if foreign countries had ignored the anti-human rights policies of the military dictatorship, and considered it only an internal problem? The North Korean human rights problem is not an exclusive issue of the conservatives. It should not be used as a tool for political maneuvering.
Is it too much to hope that the forces that esteem themselves as progressives cut the ties of political interest first and take a leading role in solving the North Korean human rights problem?

* The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ibo.


by Kim Jin-kook
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