[VIEWPOINT]The right way to handle North KoreaAn international conference on North Korean human rights and refugee problems was held in Bergen, Norway, from May 9 to 11.
The conference, co-sponsored by the Rafto Foundation, a leading human rights organization of Norway, and the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based non-governmental organization, took a new approach to North Korean human rights.
Compared to most conferences in the past that concentrated on propagating the seriousness of the human rights situation in North Korea, the meeting encouraged the expression of various opinions, tried to get a consensus of the participants through culture, art and sports and tried to find practical ways to improve the human rights situation in the North.
Many people at the meeting started to wonder if a new 21st century human rights movement could begin.
The opinion of government representatives, including those from the United States and European countries, and human rights activists representing non-governmental organizations worldwide were so diverse it gave the initial impression that the meeting was loose.
But the cultural approach tried by designers, film directors and musicians helped narrow the gap between opinions. All the participants particularly banded together at the meeting when North Korean defector and pianist Kim Cheol-woong played Arirang on the piano.
In this meeting, no resolution or declaration criticizing North Korea was adopted or announced. However, all the participants shared the perception that it is necessary to have a common understanding and make a joint effort to resolve the North Korean human rights and refugee problems, which go beyond making criticisms and lodging complaints against North Korea.
It was certainly a fresh approach for us who had been thinking that human rights could only be saved through such a struggle.
In our society, human rights in North Korea have become too politicized. Those who participate in the North Korean human rights movement are considered pro-American conservatives, and the liberals criticize them while keeping silent about human rights violations in the North.
When Washington paid more attention to the human rights violations, the confrontations between the two grew more acute.
Although both sides recognize that human rights are universal, they follow their political positions when it comes to the issue of North Korean human rights.
Through the meeting this time, however, human rights activists with a critical view on the North now have a more tolerant view.
While they pointed out that the distribution of aid to North Koreans should be more tightly monitored to ensure that the residents can benefit, they showed flexibility by expressing sympathy to the North Korea policy of South Korea’s government.
Also, the so-called liberals recognized the necessity that we have to pursue other means, other than keeping silence, to improve human rights. And the human rights ambassador of South Korea has expressed his concern over human rights infringements in North Korea for the first time.
The fact that the conference was held in Norway, a country away from the center of power politics, helped exclude political bias in discussions. The meeting organized by international civic societies was held in a Nordic country which has a certain influence in diplomacy; a soft power rather than military power.
Among the 500 participants from 22 countries were people, besides the government representatives, representing the civic societies of the world, including the UN special commissioner on the human rights situation in North Korea, human rights activists, journalists and academics.
It was unique to see that government representatives participated in a meeting organized by non-governmental organizations to express their opinions and that the participants drew a consensus through networks of their own groups.
It is proof that human rights transcend national borders and that the international civic society leads human rights.
The human rights movement of the 21st century is changing. It was the non-governmental organizations that initiated the adoption of the UN resolution on North Korean human rights. They also led the adoption of human rights standards.
We have to accept reality and change the way we approach North Korean human rights. We must listen to the voice of the international civic society, send our support to them and participate in the creation of norms for the international society.
It is not a political demagogue but a civic society that leads the move to improve human rights. And the accomplishment of such improvement is possible only through the super-national network of the 21st century, not through the struggles of the 20th century.
* The writer, a professor of international relations at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University, is a trustee of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
by Soh Chang-rok