Forgetting about human rights

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Forgetting about human rights

Yeh Young-june

The author is the editor of JoongAng Sunday.

The term GPS has been pitched often by President Yoon Suk-yeol on the global stage. It does not refer to the global positioning system but stands for a “global pivot state,” a nation of strategic importance. Finding it coincidentally matching the role of a GPS on foreign affairs, government officials have been making mention of it often. But Seoul’s GPS seems to be malfunctioning.

On Nov. 16, the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee dealing with social, humanitarian and cultural affairs approved a draft resolution on the human rights situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which Russia annexed forcefully. The resolution was approved by 78 in favor, 12 against, and with 79 abstentions. The draft has been put to a vote every November since Russia’s forcible annexation, and Korea abstained at every vote.

But this year was different under the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which has set being a global pivot state as national goal and vowed to actively participate in human rights discussions based on universal values and norms. During his address in the UN General Assembly, President Yoon declared the nation would set its eyes beyond the Korean Peninsula for a greater role in international affairs to uphold universal values and standards. A foreign ministry official pointed out that abstentions outnumbered votes of approval to justify its stance. But such an explanation is shameful when looking at the names in the list of abstainers.

On Oct. 31, the UN General Assembly Third Committee issued a joint statement on behalf of 50 nations expressing grave concerns over the human rights situation in China, mostly involving the Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The 50 countries included not just the western powers of the U.S., the UK, and Australia, but also African nations. Korea was not one of them.

It should not have been a surprise under the Moon Jae-in administration, but the action was bewildering under the new conservative government. Seoul had voted in favor of a UN vote on the issue of human rights violations of Uyghurs on Oct. 6, but it changed its stance less than a month. Why has Seoul shown a different position on the same issue?
President Yoon Suk-yeol shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a summit in Bali, Indonesia on the sidelines of G20 Summit. [YONHAP] 

In between was a summit between President Yoon and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Oct. 22 in Bali, Indonesia on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Beijing would have protested strongly after Seoul voted in favor of the idea of the UN Human Rights Council hosting an international forum on the Uyghur issue. Given its nature, Beijing could have raised an objection without giving an answer to Seoul’s request for a summit. Foreign ministry officials who had to arrange the first Yoon-Xi summit urgently felt pressure. China had denied a plane carrying the Polish defense minister and his delegation crossing the Chinese skies to visit Korea. Yoon and Xi met for less than a half an hour. The meeting itself was hyped rather than what had been discussed.

Xi entering his third term has met with 19 heads of state in back-to-back international summit conferences in Bali and Bangkok. They were mostly China’s neighboring countries with whom Beijing wishes to improve ties to restore influence in the region. If Korea went on to join the condemnation on human rights violation by China, would China shun the Xi-Yoon summit? We cannot know. But if Seoul continues to waver, it could send a wrong message to Beijing and international society. Korea could appear as being easily tamed by China. Korea will be asked to vote on Xinjiang issue again. Whatever decision it makes in the future, Seoul may not be able to easily restore confidence it had lost after failing to show consistency in international affairs. Korea has scored poorly on the case of Xinjiang issue.

The country must pursue value diplomacy and GPS as a developed rank. But if it lacks the will and ability to uphold its values consistently and does not act, it will lose credibility as a GPS. When GPS does not work, the driver could get lost.
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