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  • English
  • 2003.10.24
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Human Rights in North Korea: Dilemmas Posed in the South

Francis Daehoon Lee (deputy secretary, PSPD)

Oct 24 2003

North Korean Issues Today

The foremost issue today is the conflict between North Korea and the U.S. over security concerns. This conflict puts Korea in an unstable environment in many aspects, often gathering a war crisis over the horizon. It has certainly deteriorated the inter-Korea relations since the so-called war on terror.

At the same time, there is a wide range of serious economic and social crises observed in North Korea today, giving rise to a speculation of its systemic collapse. This speculation has caused a round of debates, which also brought into the public attention the implications of this uncertainty to the interests of all countries in Northeast Asia .

Human rights situation in North Korea can be generally said to be very poor. The totalitarian nature of its party-state system does not allow people to enjoy the basic freedom and rights stipulated in various international human rights laws. In addition to this, the basic right to life has been seriously threatened since the mid-1990s due to the almost total failure of the national economic management. Widespread famine have taken lives en masse and created a large number of refugees with little or no protection.

The North Korean government has been highly reluctant to accept any criticism of it human rights situation. It often linked human rights talks with a threat to North Korea’s survival, and justified its conduct of human rights violations with the right to self-determination and the right to survival of a nation.

At the same time, North Korea has also shown some signs of internal reforms, both economic and political, towards more opened and friendly relationship with the outside world. In improving relations with the European Union, North Korea had the agenda of human rights included in the talks, the first of this kind in its history. However, since the “Axis of Evil” speech by President Bush of the U.S. in 2002, North Korea has returned to an uncompromising stance over its internal matters.

Human Rights in North Korea Seen from South Korea

North Korea’s human rights issues have too often been politicized in South Korea: they were presented as a justification of equivalent human rights violations in South Korea under the authoritarian regimes of the past. As security concerns overwhelmed human rights concerns in South Korea, human rights in North Korea were not viewed as human rights issues either. In divided Korea, security politics prevailed and both North and South Korea developed a mutually dependent discourse system of suppressing human rights concerns within and without from highly politicized national security doctrines.

It was in late 1980s when non-governmental groups began a concerted ‘reconciliation’ campaigns towards North Korea, which included dissemination of so-far unfamiliar information about North Korea to the public, “Learn about North Korea” campaign. This wave of ‘rethinking’ partly brought down the trend of ‘demonization’ of North Korea created by the South Korean regime, while, at the same time, opened the situation of poor human rights protection in North Korea to the public attention. This generated lively debates, often very much ideological, on the nature of North Korean system and how South Korean should approach human rights issues in the north.

When the dire famine in North Korea was know in mid-1990s, a large number of civic groups in South Korea began to appeal for sustained humanitarian aids to the north by pointing the impact of famine as the most critical infringement of basic rights of human beings. Ideological debates recoiled and humanitarian concerns surged. Public participation to fund-raise and sending food and medicine was high. At the same time, the famine itself became a strong moral ground for the North Korea critiques for the illegitimacy of the regime in Pyongyang.

South Korea’s reconciliatory approach to North Korea, particularly since 1998 in the popular name of “Sunshine”, had an effect of placing various debates on the north into a track of hope, hope for gradual progress and change in situation in North Korea. However, economic crisis prolonged, tension between North Korea and the US escalated, and North Korea showed little signs of giving up its belligerent stance towards the south. Much of the public felt uneasy about this continuity, which has translated into the recent round of debates on South Korea’s approach to the north. One of the main arguments against reconciliation is expressed as “North Korea’s constancy” despite “aids shower”. Here, North Korea’s human rights records serve as reinforcing this argument.

Roughly, debates on North Korea’s human rights situation are mostly about the root cause, priority concerns, type of solution, conditionality of aid and potentiality of reforms in the north. They can be summarized as follows.

The root cause of the problem is the very nature of the North Korea’s political and economic system, or the very nature of the international isolation and aggression towards the country. The priority concern is civil rights and political freedom, or the right to life and freedom from famine. The solution to the problem starts from publicity and pressure to the regime in the north, in other words, by active human rights politics, or from quiet governmental diplomacy restraining politicization of human rights. Humanitarian aids to North Korea should be solidly conditioned to political reforms, or should remain humanitarian in nature, i.e. unconditional. Changes in North Korea should be designed and enforced by political and economic sanctions, or should be induced by providing necessary and supportive conditions for its own initiatives for reform. In sum, the nature of the debate is whether we should take North Korea’s human rights issue as a humanitarian or political one.

Roh Muhyon’s government chose to be absent when the United Nations Human Rights Commission hold a vote and passed a resolution condemning human rights situation in North Korea in March 2003. Public opinions diverged again in South Korea. One trend was to criticize the government decision and welcome the resolution as a step towards improving the situation in the north. The other trend was to express worry that North Korea’s human rights issue were taken out from the larger humanitarian framework and politicized in a way substantially damaging rapprochement of both societies in Korea. In the middle, there were demands to recognize the seriousness of the issue and abstain from political contamination of the issue at the same time.

Reflections

Many North Korea experts in South Korea point out that human rights concerns in the south are inevitably linked with the history of division (the past), the current inter-Korean and international politics in the region (the present), and the new values (the future) sought by the public. As there is no strong majority consensus on these in South Korea, debates will continue and relevant policies will be constrained from different directions.

However, there have come up some valuable suggestions among non-governmental groups on the ways to ameliorate this gab of public opinions. There is a justified need to engage in much grounded fact-finding work on the actual situation of human rights in North Korea free from politicized allegations. Such work will help prioritize immediate concerns over long-term ones. There is also a need to develop and present feasible programs to improve human rights in the north, which can be implemented in a cooperative manner with North Koreans.

At the same time, human rights agencies and civic groups should develop a set of standards with which the issue of ‘politicization of human rights’ can be properly curtailed. Using a human rights issue for a political purpose does more harm than good. Standards should include internationally recognized legal and humanitarian principles regulating human rights and humanitarian activities, such as principles dealing with the issue of ‘conditionality of humanitarian aids’. Finally, the issue of peace and ethics of arms race should be given a priority scrutiny in the current situation of grave tension. The effects of militarization and arms race have put both Koreas under stringent environment for other matters for decades. Today, this effect is hugely multiplied in its consequences in North Korea. The renewed hard-line and militarist approach of Washington to Northeast Asia manifests deep impact in this regard. Without peace and disarmament efforts being linked to the efforts to improve human rights in North Korea, the internal militarization within North Korea seems irreversible. Many aspects of foreign and security policies on North Korea should be reformulated if they are to sincerely deal with issues such as human rights.
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