[Column] Korea finds voice on democracy, human rights

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[Column] Korea finds voice on democracy, human rights

Michael Green
The author is CEO of the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

One of the most puzzling aspects of politics in Korea for Americans is the way that progressives who once fought the hardest for human rights in South Korea are often least willing to fight for human rights in North Korea. President George W. Bush was so perplexed by this dynamic that he asked President Kim Dae-jung in the Blue House in February 2002 how President Kim — who almost died for democracy and once famously took on Lee Kuan Yew in the pages of Foreign Affairs to champion democracy in Asia — was so silent on the horrors occurring north of the DMZ. President Kim paused for a moment and then asked everybody to leave the room. For the next 40 minutes, he explained to President Bush that his greatest desire was to bring hope to the people in the North. But he then said that his path to do so was through reconciliation and dialogue with the regime rather than through confrontation. It was so passionate and heartfelt that Bush believed his sincerity and came away far more impressed with Kim than he had been before the meeting.

But if Kim retained his passion for restoring human dignity to those suffering in the North, subsequent progressive governments seem to have lost it. The so-called “386 Generation” that came into power with President Roh Moo-hyun had no such passion and viewed the authoritarian governments in the South as the real enemy, often ignoring the horrific human rights abuses in the North, which many around President Roh had once dismissed as fabrications used by the Park, Chun and Noh governments to suppress the rights of democracy advocates in the South. That criticism of the previous authoritarian governments in Seoul was not completely wrong, but the way so many intellectuals around Roh turned a blind eye to the suffering in the North was difficult to excuse. The Moon Jae-in administration struck me as having much less passion for democracy in either the North or the South and seemed fixated instead on diplomacy with Pyongyang. Human rights concerns were seen by Moon’s Blue House as a distraction from their dream of a Kim Jong-un visit to the South and the signing of a historic peace agreement of some kind.

As a result, Korea lost its proper voice on democracy and human rights. And Korea’s voice matters. When the United States highlights human rights abuses in North Korea by itself, Pyongyang ignores American entreaties. Japan’s joining in the fray since 2002 has offered little more leverage, given North Korea’s animosity to Tokyo. But when Europe and other parts of the world spotlight human rights abuses in North Korea, Pyongyang and its patron China find it much more difficult to simply claim that everyone in the North is very happy (which is what North Korean senior negotiator Kim Kye-kwan told me in Pyongyang in 2002 when I was asked to raise these issues by President Bush). When Seoul is not willing to speak out on human rights, in other words, much of the world stays silent. But when Seoul leads, the world follows.

That is why it is so encouraging that the Yoon government released a detailed report on human rights violations in North Korea last week. These reports were prepared by the government since 2018 but the previous Moon government classified them — not because the sources and methods were secret, but because the Blue House did not want to upset Pyongyang. As President Yoon Suk Yeol said, he took a different tack because:” the reality of the appalling human rights violations against the North Korean people must be fully revealed to the international community.” The detailed and gruesome accounts of brutal torture and execution in the report will have exactly that impact on world opinion.
The United Nations Human Rights Council adopts a resolution on North Korea’s human rights violations through consensus without voting at the UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday. [UNITED NATIONS TV]

The Yoon administration is also putting Korea back on the map in the international debate about democracy. Where the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations played important roles in hosting the Summit of Democracy, the Moon government was largely quiet on that front. Indeed, progressive scholars of democracy like Shin Gi-wook at Stanford published work critical of the way that Moon’s government was using soft tools of democratic repression borrowed from earlier authoritarian leaders on the right. This, too, was a lost opportunity for Korea and Asia. In my own travels to Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, I found that the model for successful democratization is not the United States or Japan — it is Korea. There is much to attract both non-governmental activists and reform-minded government officials to the Korean precedent because democratization resulted in both wealth and a strong and respected military establishment. It was, therefore, a promising development that last week the Yoon government also co-hosted the second (virtual) Summit for Democracy launched by President Joe Biden in 2022. The Biden administration had come under some criticism for framing the earlier summit as a democracy-versus-authoritarianism grouping. The decision to not invite important strategic players like Thailand and Singapore did not go over well with U.S. Asian allies like Japan and Australia. But Korea had the credibility this year to bridge the Asian-Atlantic divide and reforge consensus on the universality of democratic norms to successful states and peaceful and prosperous regional orders.

This week in Sydney, I will host the third annual meeting of the Sunnylands Initiative focused on reinforcing democratic resilience in the Indo-Pacific. Our group of thought leaders from the United States, Australia, Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, and the rest of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands will build on prior meetings held in Sunnylands, California and Odawara, Japan. Korea’s hosting of the Democracy Summit and recent report on human rights will give a great boost to the participants, who include prominent Korean scholars of democracy such as Prof. Lee Sook-jong at the East Asia Institute, Sungkyunkwan University.

But it is not just scholars and policymakers who will take encouragement from Korea’s renewed voice on democracy and human rights. I suspect that someday we will hear from former political prisoners in North Korea or other parts of Asia on how Seoul’s clear stand gave them the courage to persevere until history vindicated their stand against dictators.
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