Most outsiders would probably be surprised at the degree of controversy within South Korea associated with North Korean human rights issues. It goes without saying that North Korea is the most human rights abusing government extant. But as Andrew Wolman, a lawyer teaching at Hankuk University in Seoul, writes in an excellent piece in the East-West Center Asia Pacific Issues series, “South Korea’s policy response has been characterized by partisan divisions and bitter disputes.”
Most Americans are surprised to learn that South Korean politics are even more polarized than politics here in the United States. While concern about the plight of North Koreans is widespread, “progressives” have generally opposed addressing the North Korean human rights issue. Some have argued that doing so would constitute interference in North Korea’s internal affairs, while others claim that it is the hostility of the US which forces North Korea into its authoritarian response. More practically, many progressives argue that spotlighting the North Korean regime’s human rights record will simply complicate security issues without having any real impact inside North Korea. Instead, human rights concerns should be downplayed, at least temporarily, in an attempt to reduce tension and, depending on the faction, promote peaceful coexistence (Roh Moo-hyun), or eventual unification (Kim Dae-jung).
In contrast, most conservatives support a more assertive stance, both at home, and abroad, through the UN system. They argue that the North Korean regime actually does care what the rest of the world thinks, at least at the margin, and may be restrained in its actions by knowing “the world is watching” and individuals could eventually face justice in international or post-unification proceedings.
Since 2005, one manifestation of this split has been the ongoing attempt in the National Assembly to pass a North Korea Human Rights Act, similar to legislation passed in the US and Japan. With the National Assembly deadlocked, the South Korean Human Rights Commission has stepped into the vacuum, holding human rights conferences (full disclosure: I spoke at one) and establishing a North Korean Human Rights Documentation Center and Archives, recording complaints of human rights abuses from both North Korean refugees and NGOs operating in the field. (Full disclosure: we use this material in our work.) The Commission, in turn, been criticized by the progressive camp for neglecting human rights abuses in South Korea, in particular denial of religious rights and abuse of the National Security Law. (While it has been unable to pass a North Korea Human Rights Act, the National Assembly has been able to pass legislation improving the treatment of North Korean refugees, however.)
Wolman offers four recommendations:
- First, both camps should try to depoliticize the issue by foregoing vitriolic attacks on the other in which the opponents’ motives or sincerity are sometimes disparaged. Easier said than done.
- Second, emphasize multilateral cooperation, including with China. I agree, but have to wonder if in his lawyerly evenhandedness, Wolman is not giving the progressives too much credit: when in power they seldom supported action on North Korean human rights by the UN, and studiously avoided raising the issue with the Chinese. To me this is the real tragedy of the South Korean fight over human rights in North Korea: the failure of the progressives to generate any genuine alternative to the conservatives’ approach.
- Third, with the South Korean government ministries, concerns over North Korean human rights should be mainstreamed so that each relevant ministry addresses the issue within its own competencies.
- Fourth, Wolman argues that partly for cosmetic reasons, the South Korean Human Rights Commission should not allow the abuses in North Korea to distract it from its primary responsibility, which is human rights abuse in South Korea, even though such abuses are of an incomparably smaller magnitude. Specifically, Wolman recommends repeal of the National Security Law. While there are ongoing reasons to be concerned about North Korean subversion, the NSL has outlived its usefulness and is subject to abuse. South Korea can do better.