Defector and former diplomat work together to protect human rights in North
Human rights violations in North Korea have worsened during the Moon Jae-in administration, says former South Korean diplomat Kim Suk-woo and Lee Ae-ran, a defector from the North, who are also leading major civic groups on North Korean human rights in Seoul.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that [the Moon administration] has put the stability of the North Korean regime as the foremost priority,” said Kim, chairman of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. “On the issue of human rights of North Korean people, the administration has completely turned their backs on it.”
Kim, a graduate of Gyeonggi High School and Seoul National University’s law school, passed the foreign service exam in 1968, the first year that it was held, and has been a career diplomat all his life. He was deputy minister of unification from 1996 to 1998, during which he helped the administration enact the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act and establish the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, more commonly known as Hanawon, the agency run by the Unification Ministry to help defectors settle in Korea.
“By the Constitution of South Korea, North Korean people are citizens of Korea. Yet [the South] has sent two North Korean fishermen back to the North [in 2019], calling them culprits for murder,” said Lee. “The president ought to take responsibility for this. The administration has also painted the defectors in a negative light [in the process of passing the law banning] flying anti-North leaflets into North Korea.”
Lee is a defector from Pyongyang. When she was a teenager, her family was de-facto banished to Ryanggang Province following their grandparents’ defection. She graduated with a degree in food engineering from Sinuiju Engineering College in North Pyongan Province. Then, in 1997, she defected to the South with her father, younger brother and son, who was barely 100 days old at the time.
With a drive for the academics, Lee completed her masters’ and Ph.D. studies at Ewha Womans University, also in food engineering, becoming the first female defector to teach in Korea as a professor. In 2010 she received the International Women of Courage Award from then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Since 2012, Lee has been running the famous North Korean restaurant Neungra Table in central Seoul with defectors, on top of all her ongoing research, teaching and activism work. Earlier this year, Kim was named the standing representative of North Korean Human Rights Union, an association of around 30 civic groups on North Korean human rights in Korea.
Kim and Lee first met each other at a year-end meeting of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights in 1999 and have stayed friends and colleagues since. The JoongAng Ilbo sat down with the two recently to hear more about the situation of human rights in North Korea and what can and should be done by the governments around the world.
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
Q. Why is it important to talk about North Korea’s human rights violations at this time?
A. Kim Suk-woo: Unification of the two Koreas has to happen on the foundation that basic human rights are protected across the Peninsula. Protection of human rights will be a key part of the unification process. The history of mankind is about constant development of human rights. The fight for human rights will never cease, and it is a fight with a clear ending — the ending in which the protectors of human rights win.
Lee Ae-ran: The North Korean regime has starved 3 million people to death. I escaped the country with rat poison in my hands [in case I was caught and had to make the decision to take my own life] because the only option before me was to try to escape with my life at risk, or be sent to a concentration camp. The defectors carry a sense of responsibility because we’ve escaped the fate that many others still face back in North Korea. If we don’t remember them, if we don’t act, who will?
How would you assess the Moon Jae-in administration’s North Korea policy during the past four years?
Kim: It’s not an overstatement to say that [the Moon administration] has put the stability of the regime as the foremost priority. On the issue of human rights of North Korean people, the administration has completely turned their backs on it.
Lee: They’ve made the life of North Koreans struggling under the dictatorship harder. The people of South Korea are seriously concerned about the future of the nation.
Where do you think the administration’s North Korea policies fell short?
Lee: By the Constitution of South Korea, North Korean people are citizens of Korea. Yet [the South] has sent two North Korean fishermen back to the North [in 2019], calling them culprits for murder. The president ought to take responsibility for this. The administration has also painted the defectors in a negative light [in the process of passing the law banning] flying anti-North leaflets into North Korea.
Kim: We’ve consistently asked the government to speak to the North about the human rights issues in the inter-Korean summits, but our requests have been ignored.
The recent U.S.-Korea summit has highlighted the issue of human rights violations in the North. What did you think of it?
Kim: It shows that the U.S. government is committed to the issue. The [South] Korean government will have to respond more actively.
Lee: While it is worth noting that the two leaders paid attention to the issue, I was hoping for more concrete and specific measures on what they will do to address the human rights violations in the North.
There have been recent reports on unfortunate deaths of defectors in Korea. Where does the defector issue stand in Korean society today?
Lee: Some of the pro-Moon factions in media outlets have released information about defectors in such a way that paints them in a negative light. Many of the defectors are struggling to fit into society in Korea, as we’ve seen in the case of a defector mother and her son starving to death in Seoul. There are quite a number of defectors that I know who tell me that they’d like to go back because life here is harder.
Kim: There is an unspoken feeling among the defectors that the government of South Korea is not for them but against them. And that creates a very unwelcoming environment for the defectors.
Isn’t the Unification Ministry looking after the welfare of the defectors?
Lee: It’s been 24 years since my defection to Korea, but I still see the ministry prioritizing issues other than welfare and care for defectors. In the United States, it is not a public official who is in charge of taking care of defectors and helping them adjust to life in the country, but actually a fellow defector. I think that should be the case also in Korea — the Korea Hana Foundation [the main organization to support defectors in Korea run by the Korean government] should not be headed by a government official or a politician.
Kim: The Unification Ministry has always been embroiled in the left-right political division of the nation, which hinders their work to create effective policies for the defectors and North Korean people.
What areas on the North Korean human rights issues do you think the Moon administration should focus on for the remainder of its tenure?
Lee: Based on the North Korean Human Rights Act enacted in 2016, President Moon ought to launch a human rights organization dedicated on North Korea. And they ought to repeal the law banning sending anti-North leaflets immediately — the law infringes on the freedom of expression of defectors in South Korea and the right of North Koreans to information.
Kim: There are defectors who are stuck in the territories of China and Russia. The South Korean government ought to act immediately to bring them safely to Korea. The Korean government needs to help the defectors in Korea settle down successfully, with a future-oriented mindset, thinking about the unification of Korea to come.
What kinds of activities will you be focusing on from now on?
Kim: For the past three years, South Korea has refused to join the group of nations who have submitted resolutions at the United Nations decrying the human rights violations in the North. I will continue to work with the international community to protect the rights of the North Korean people and the defectors.
Lee: Ever since Korea repatriated the two North Korean fishermen who defected to the South, it is said that the people in the North have been afraid to attempt to defect, for fear of being sent back. In the South, there has been mounting criticism on the defector Park Sang-hak, who headed the group that sent leaflets to the North. I think all of us should step forward to say, “I am Park Sang-hak,” to stand up for the rights of the North Korean people. I will never stop working for the rights of the North Korean people.
BY CHANG SE-JEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]