Human Rights Roundup II



The question of how to hold the North Korean leadership accountable for its human rights record continues to generate thought (I will be speaking on these issues in Washington later in the week. Today, I look at the increasing rhetorical focus of the United States and South Korea on human rights issues, and some of the politics in South Korea that are roiling the human rights debate there. Next time, I review the most recent U.N. report on human rights in North Korea, reflecting the ongoing international puzzlement about how to implement the Commission of Inquiry findings.

First up, Secretary Kerry made a surprisingly strong statement last week in comments following a meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah. After praising Kuwait’s efforts to counter North Korea’s proliferation activities—some of which are believed to operate through the Gulf—Kerry said that Kuwait had also recently taken steps “to make sure that revenues from workers are not sustaining any illegal and illegitimate regime in North Korea.”  The formulation is a little circuitous, as if there was some other regime in North Korea. But the message is clear: coming on top of new sanctions for human rights abuses initiated in July and the effort to shut down North Korea’s export of slave labor, the comments will only re-enforce the perception in Pyongyang that the ultimate aim of US policy is destabilization.

That impression was no doubt reinforced by surprisingly strong commitment to the human rights agenda coming out of the recent "2+2" meetings. Earlier in the month, the US and South Korea launched a bilateral North Korean Human Rights Consultation. The 2+2 statement underlined that the new bilateral forum would be focused on holding the leadership accountable, one of the most sensitive of all international efforts given the leaderist nature of the system.

News reports also suggest that South Korea, the United States and Japan are working to put the issue of the North's overseas workers in a U.N. human rights resolution in December; even if unsuccessful, this effort will draw welcome attention to the issue.

Meanwhile, South Korean politics continues to be roiled by human rights issues. NKNews offers good coverage of another government-opposition faceoff in the National Assembly. The Minjoo party has dug in its heels over the composition of the new human rights body created by the final passage of the ROK North Korea Human Rights Act in March. Previously, documentation of abuses had been entrusted to civil society groups. The new law created a Center for North Korean Human Rights Records, but opposition legislators believe that if appointments are not equalized the body will be used to politicize the issue.

They probably have reasons to worry, as human rights are indirectly generating a much bigger contretemps in South Korean politics (rivaling the corruption charges against the president herself). A former official has argued that the Roh administration not only punted on human rights issues to sustain its engagement policy, but might have done so after consultation with the North. Former Foreign Minister Song Min-soon made the charge in his memoir, providing background to a 2007 U.N. vote on the North's human rights record. Song claims not only that the North exercised a veto over the vote, but that Moon Jae-in was involved in the decision, undermining his bid for another run at the presidency in 2017. Kim Dae Jung was relatively clear that the purpose of engagement was to ultimately change the North Korean political system; for tactical reasons, the Roh administration decided to finesse the issue and even bury it. With the charges leveled in Song’s memoir, the merits of those two approaches are likely to be joined in the political arena.

Next time: the new UN report on human rights in North Korea. 

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