[Viewpoint] The painful outcry of North Koreans

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[Viewpoint] The painful outcry of North Koreans

As we realized that all men have human dignity, civilization began. A man’s life should not be treated lightly and a man’s pride should not be wounded. Civilization is defined that living as a slave to serve another man is savage. Of course, it took a long time for mankind to acknowledge that all men are beings of dignity.

For a long time, slaves were considered unequal to humans and the dominating concept was that women and children were also treated as less than whole human beings. However, in the age of enlightenment, we have acquired the understanding that humans are valuable beings just because we all are human.

Therefore, it is regrettable that Korean society is divided over the discussion of human rights in North Korea. The objections of pro-Pyongyang sympathizers can be expected but it is hard to understand the opposition from progressives. When we talk about human rights in Myanmar, there is little objection. Why does the human rights issue in North Korea have to be controversial?

There are desperate conditions in the North that require our paying attention to human rights. For instance, consider the political prison camps in the North. The crime of criticizing the ruler and the system ends with a person being forced to live like an animal, separated from the world for life.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was forced to forever move a heavy rock to the top of the hill for deceiving the Gods. Is criticizing a ruler a more serious sin than deceiving the gods? The prisoners in the North are shedding tears. When people are living like slaves in the 21st century, we should wipe their tears, comfort their pains and advocate against their sufferings.

Of course, there are voices of concern. Some argue, though, that if we speak up, the realtionship between North and South will become worse and will result in more severe pain for North Koreans. However, the argument is not convincing. What is the price of keeping silent on human rights infringements in North Korea? Has the inter-Korean relationship improved?

We have grown so conscious of dignity that we care about animal cruelty in zoos. We are heartbroken as countless cows and pigs are killed to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. While we have reason and logic, we have emotion and sensitivity to feel the pain. When animals are forced into the pain of death, even pigs shed tears. In the North, humans are forced to live under the unjust system, enduring unimaginable humiliation and insult. We need to sympathize with their suffering and tears.

When we discuss human rights in North Korea, we aren’t talking about social rights or welfare. The least we hope for is to spare human beings from facing the fate of dying like cattle and pigs during an epidemic. And as we are not strangers but people sharing the same ethnic background, it would be only humane and ethical to address the issue openly.

If we don’t talk about human rights, we would be admitting the cowardice of intelligence and destitution of compatriotism rather than sincerity for unification or wisdom for peace. The advocates of human rights in North Korea are not inspired by extreme anti-communist ideas but are driven by a natural affection for people with the same roots. If we truly embrace the North Korean residents as compatriots, we should be able to talk about the minimum level of dignity and life quality as human beings just as we offer rice and fertilizer.

Pain and tears have moral appeal. We may walk past a child who is laughing out loud. But if the child is crying, we have to stop. The sound of a cry has the moral power to attract our attention. Let’s listen to the painful outcry of the North Koreans. If we are the same Koreans, it is fair and proper to respond to the outcry.

Opponents may say there is no benefit to irritating Pyongyang. Of course, we shouldn’t unnecessarily annoy the North Korean authorities. However, for a righteous cause, we should dare to pressure them. The appeal for human rights is not some unrealistic demand of an idealist.

The North Korean human rights condition is a situation beyond imagination. A human being must not live like an animal regardless of who he or she is. Whether rich or poor, whether life is harsh or comfortable, everyone deserves dignity for just being human.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes slept in a tub in the marketplace, begging for his food but he had the dignity to turn down the approach of Alexander the Great.

Struggling in absolute poverty, the North Koreans do not have the dignity that even the homeless in the South have, much less the dignity of Diogenes.

How many more reasons do we need to advocate North Korean human rights?

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of civil ethics education at Seoul National University.


By Park Hyo-jong
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