‘Golden time’ is now
On Nov. 18, the Third Committee of the 69th UN General Assembly passed a resolution on human rights abuse in North Korea by a vote of 111-19 vote, with 55 abstentions. The resolution condemns the North’s systematic, serious and extensive rights violations and recommends prosecution of its leaders for crimes against humanity at the International Human Rights Court. While it is unclear whether the unprecedentedly decisive resolution will be passed by the Security Council, the Korean government welcomes the measure and considers it a diplomatic accomplishment.
North Korea is resisting fiercely, as expected. On Nov. 23, the North Korean National Defense Commission issued a statement that “human rights precisely mean the right to independence and the sovereignty of a relevant country” and “[we] categorically deny and reject the ‘resolution on human rights.’” The commission mentioned “merciless punishment” and threatened, “Does she think the Blue House will be safe if guns roar for aggression and a nuclear war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula?” The biggest complaint was that Pyongyang had shown “humanitarian leniency” in releasing American detainees, but the United States “responded to it with the frantic ‘human rights’ racket against the DPRK.” On Nov. 25, a large rally denouncing the UN resolution was held at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, followed by a series of anti-American protests across North Korea.
Seoul’s position is clear. As it has strongly denounced North Korea’s parallel pursuit of nuclear and economic development, the importance of the inter-Korean talks has been consistently emphasized. The same logic applies to the human rights issue. While pressuring North Korea’s human rights abuse from the perspective of universal value, Seoul has steadily called for the resumption of high-level meetings. If North Korea accepts Seoul’s position unconditionally and agrees to talk, it would really be the “jackpot” for the Park Geun-hye administration’s diplomacy by principle. Unfortunately, that is a very slim possibility.
Until now, North Korea has constantly demanded that Seoul “stop slandering.” It is not going to tolerate the slandering or insulting of the supreme leader. The same reasoning was made as Pyongyang refused the second high-level meeting because of the leaflet distribution. If South Korea makes more specific moves, such as legislating the North Korean human rights act or installing a UN field office for the investigation of North Korean human rights abuses, Pyongyang’s protests would likely explode. Basically, the North Korean leadership thinks Seoul is not raising the issue just to improve the human rights condition of North Koreans, but using it to shake the foundation of the Kim Jong-un regime and accelerate unification by absorption.
I may not be only one worrying about the situation on the Korean Peninsula during the first half of next year. In March, the Korea-U.S. joint military exercises - dubbed Key Resolve and Foal Eagle - will take place as usual. It is evident that North Korea will pursue aggressive military drills and missile tests around this time. Of course, there also is the possibility of a fourth nuclear test. President Park has said that we still need to talk even during a war, but, realistically, when the tension is elevated, inter-Korean talks become impossible.
Speaking to the U.S. Congress in May, Park said, “You cannot have the cake and eat it,” as she criticized North Korea’s pursuit of both nuclear and economic development. But now, Pyongyang is striking back by arguing, “Seoul cannot discuss human rights and talk with Pyongyang at the same time.”
If that is the case, what we need at this juncture are preventive measures. We need to send clear messages that what Seoul wants is improved human rights conditions, not the toppling of the regime or reunification by absorption. If necessary to persuade Pyongyang, Seoul should consider sending a high-level special envoy. Preemptive appeasement measures such as resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism, lifting of the May 24 measures, humanitarian aid and exchanges should be considered positively. Based on such a foundation, softer issues such as family reunions and the DMZ World Peace Park could be discussed. The small beginning will be the door to more sensitive issues such as military drills and political differences. We need a change of thinking beyond the convention.
If the Park administration’s North Korean policy is to bear any kind of fruit, the next few months will be a “golden time.” If the opportunity is missed, the inter-Korean relationship could be trapped in the “lame duck jinx” of the third year of the administration, and a breakthrough would not be found easily. If Park wants to leave a legacy of justification and real interests, now is the time to break with convention. And it would pave the way to reunification.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 1, Page 31
The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in