[GLOBAL EYE]South not truly silentAn international conference on North Korean human rights problem was held recently in Seoul. In this conference, many questions no one can easily answer were asked at the same time. Particularly, questions about human rights and politics, civic society and the value of human rights, methods of posing issues and the correlation between human rights and international politics were addressed.
While the conference was being held, meetings opposing the conference were held by groups that until then had been more positive and progressive on human rights issues in our society than other groups, including the Catholic Human Rights Commission, the KNCC (National Council of Churches in Korea), the Human Rights Center and the National Buddhist Association for Practice. This situation was confusing to most people, because those groups had consistently been loud on human rights issues during past dictatorships, even when most conservative forces and religious groups kept silent, yielding to the logic of nationalism and industrialism. It is also difficult to judge who is right or wrong because of the “accumulated experiences” of the past.
The conservative forces that hosted this international convention attacked the hypocrisy of the liberal human rights groups. They also criticized the Korean government’s silence on the North Korean human rights issue. On the other hand, the liberal human rights groups attacked the hypocrisy of the conservative forces also. They asserted that measures to practically improve the human rights situation of North Korean residents should be devised. The liberal groups also say that although the conservative groups discussed the human rights problem, the conservative groups are hiding the logic of arguing for a regime change in North Korea. In other words, the liberal groups contend that the conservative forces secretly agree with the United States’ logic that seeks to turn human rights issues into a foundation for deciding policy.
Both sides have a point. This confuses most citizens who wish to improve human rights conditions in North Korea to the level of universal human values.
The United States dispatched a special envoy on human rights to this international conference. The country provided some of the funds for the event also. The U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, made remarks during the conference that North Korea is “a criminal regime.” Such intervention and remarks by the United States put the Korean government in a very awkward position as it tries to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula by encouraging North Korea to take part in dialogue and negotiation.
That is why the South Korean foreign and unification ministers turned away from the human rights conference. They also expressed their regret at Mr. Vershbow’s remarks. Those who criticize the ministers say that their behavior proves their negligence of the North Korean human rights condition and harms Korean diplomacy. They say the ministers should reflect on the fact that the United States, rather than us, is concerned about the North Korean human rights situation.
How should we accept this reality? It is very difficult, in fact, for the absolute value of human rights and human rights policies for a particular period and a particular country to be equivalent. According to Freedom House ― a non-profit, nonpartisan American organization ― Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States, is among the eight countries where human rights are infringed upon most seriously. But when human rights activists in Saudi Arabia were imprisoned for demanding political freedom and human rights improvement, the United States was silent. Moreover, U.S. President George W. Bush invited the Saudi Arabian Prince Abdula to his Crawford Ranch in Texas. Since the Sept. 11, 2002, terrorist attacks, the United States has also increased its support to Pakistan, which has made nuclear weapons, ignoring the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and whose human rights infringements had been continuously criticized. When there were criticisms against Israel’s construction of its dividing wall and its repression of human rights and whenever Arabian countries took the lead in submitting a resolution to denounce Israel’s human rights violation, the United States kept silent and gave up on or opposed the resolution. That was because of the unique position of the United States.
As such, human rights and policy move within the scope of correlation while taking account of a concerned country’s security, politics and economy. It would be contradictory and hypocritical to put the value of human rights and freedom on absolute standards and to think that this value should not be restricted by rightists or leftists, or by any country or foreign policy. For this reason, there is endless controversy over a particular country’s policy on human rights.
Has South Korea indeed been silent about the human rights condition of North Koreans to date? Records show that this is not necessarily true. Is there any country, except South Korea, that has accepted defectors from North Korea while the others just talk about the human rights of the defectors? In this regard, it is deceptive to let an image of South Korea form as if this country alone keeps silent while the rest of the world is making efforts to improve the human rights situation in North Korea.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Seok-hwan