Appeasing Pyongyang has to stop

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Appeasing Pyongyang has to stop

Kim Suk-woo

The author, a former vice minister of unification, is the board chair of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.

South Koreans and the rest of the world, including the United Nations, still have questions about the five years of the Moon Jae-in presidency. Why did the liberal administration bury its head in the sand when it came to the brutal reality of human rights violations in North Korea? Why did a North Korean defector and her young son starve to death in South Korea in 2019? Why did the pro-North administration persistently yield to pressure from the recalcitrant state across the border? Clues to these questions can be found in the attitude of the left-wing government toward North Korea.

North Korean defectors rapidly increased during the period of the Arduous March in the mid-to-late 1990s. In response, South Korea had to build Hanawon, a state agency to help defectors settle in the South. But former president Kim Dae-jung, an opposition leader at the time, strongly opposed it because “the North Korean regime does not like the idea.” That was a preposterous objection.

In 2004 and 2006, the United States and Japan enacted a bill on North Korean human rights. In 2005, Rep. Kim Moon-soo — a lawmaker from the conservative Grand National Party and now head of the Economic, Social and Labor Council under President Yoon Suk-yeol — proposed a bill on North Korean human rights. It was methodically thwarted by left-wing parties led by the Democratic Party (DP) over the next 11 years. The bill finally passed the legislature in March 2016 after 11 years. Six years have passed since, but the North Korean Human Rights Foundation has not opened yet because of the DP’s refusal to recommend board members for the foundation.

In 2003, the UN Commission on Human Rights, a predecessor of the current Human Rights Council (Unhrc), passed a resolution denouncing North Korea for a serious level of human rights violations. Since 2004, three UN special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in the North — Vitit Muntarbhorn, Marzuki Darusman and Tomas Ojea Quintana — have submitted their reports to the Unhrc every six years based on testimony from North Korean defectors. The Unhrc and the UN General Assembly adopt a resolution on the North’s human rights violations each year based on their report. Last August, Professor Elizabeth Salmón from Peru was appointed the fourth UN special rapporteur on the North’s human rights situation.

The UN set up the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (COI) in 2013. The commission led by Michael Kirby, a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, presented a comprehensive report on human rights violations in the North. The report concluded that because the prevalent, systemic and serious human rights infringements committed by the North Korean regime constitute crimes against humanity, the UN must bring the leader to justice at the International Criminal Court, a UN body. But China and Russia, permanent members of the UN Security Council, vetoed it over and over.

UN-level resolutions on North Korean human rights have been mostly proposed by the European Union and adopted each year. Right-wing governments in South Korea steadfastly voted for them. But left-wing administrations were always negative. The Roh Moo-hyun Blue House, in which former president Moon Jae-in served as senior secretary for civil affairs, took the lead in abstaining from the vote. In 2007, when Moon was presidential secretary for civil affairs, the Blue House became an international laughing stock by citing the need to hear North Korea’s opinion first. Even as president, Moon provoked international criticism by refusing to join the EU-led resolutions for four years in a row.

South Korea was elected a board member of the Unhrc for five consecutive years since its establishment in 2006. But not anymore — after South Korea lost to Vietnam and Maldives in a General Assembly voting in October. Those critical of the Moon administration attribute this to its pro-North stance.

Human right issues at home were a favorite agenda for the progressive forces. But the leftists in South Korea kept mum about human rights violations in the North despite their championing of human rights when they fought for democracy in the South in the 1980s. Such an inclination originates with the juche (self-reliance) ideology the members of the Moon administration worshipped as democracy fighters. They even called North Korean defectors “betrayers.”

Intellectuals among North Korean defectors were deliberately excluded from various types of government support and lectures. Rumors spread that if an individual or an organization sponsored those defectors or related groups, they must expect a tax investigation. The Moon administration repatriated two North Korean fishermen against their will in 2019 and let a South Korean fisheries official be killed and burned by the North Korean Navy in 2020. After the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un complained about the dispatching of anti-North propaganda leaflets by defectors, Moon’s DP rushed to pass a bill blocking the sending of balloons toward North Korea.

With UN Human Rights Day on December 10 approaching, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration must get the weird North Korean human rights policy back on track. His government must defend human rights of North Koreans instead of appeasing the Kim regime in Pyongyang. The Yoon administration must meet growing expectations from the rest of the world.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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