Cowardice on rightsIn December last year, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea announced that human rights violations that occur in North Korea are excluded from its investigations. That was a decision to close its eyes to severe human rights violations north of the border. Still, some members of the organization raised their voices to advise President Roh Moo-hyun to include North Korea’s human rights problems on the agenda of the inter-Korean summit. This is a drastic change and worthy of attention.
The incumbent administration has said nothing about North Korean human rights. It believes the issue could irritate North Korea and thus harm inter-Korean relations. But this is not persuasive. The United States has criticized North Korea’s human rights violations much more strongly than South Korea has. But now North Korea-U.S. relations are improving anyway. It cannot be that if South Korea raises the issue, catastrophe will follow, while if the United States does the same thing it is acceptable. It is the same with inter-Korean relations. When a breakthrough agreement between South and North Korea became effective in 1992, human rights violations existed in North Korea, but criticism did not stop the agreement.
The South Korean government claims that if North Korea’s human rights issue is mentioned in the summit meeting, conflicts will worsen. It just does not want to break any of North Korea’s taboos. This means the South Korean government tries to avoid displeasing North Korea.
Former U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan, frequently mentioned the human rights issue in the former Soviet Union during crucial summit meetings. Nevertheless, they reached agreements on disarmament of nuclear weapons.
At the 2000 inter-Korean summit, Kim Jong-il complained that Seoul punished South Korean students who raised North Korean flags on campus as a sign of protest. That was clearly a remark intended to intervene in South Korea’s domestic affairs. North Korea’s leader said everything he wanted to say without caring whether South Korea would be upset or not. If South Korea is worried about upsetting North Korea, it is acting cowardly.
Human rights have long been regarded as universal values. No country can be an exception. The administration cannot neglect the pain of our fellow Koreans living in North Korea. The South Korean government must use the summit meeting as an opportunity to raise the issue.