[COLUMN] Is it worth pushing North Korea on human rights?

By Park Sae-jin Posted : December 16, 2022, 09:01 Updated : December 16, 2022, 09:01

[Courtesy of Michael Breen]

[This article was contributed by Michael Breen, the CEO of Insight Communications and a former foreign correspondent]
SEOUL -- Many years ago, when North Korea was hoping for diplomatic relations with the United States, authorities there spent several months considering the pros and cons of abolishing the death penalty. They thought an American embassy in Pyongyang would mean lots of American politicians visiting the country to criticize them publicly on human rights. A pre-emptive move would give political leaders something to fire back with.
“I understand your concerns, Senator,” the leader could say. “In fact, here in the Workers Paradise we are very concerned about the human rights of Americans. We note that your own state of Texas has 199 men on death row and we urge that in the name of human rights the United States join with other civilized countries and abolish capital punishment.”
Well, as we know, North Korea did not establish diplomatic relations with America and the death penalty is still in place.
But perhaps they should rethink a new version of the old defensive strategy because now South Korea is going to start targeting them on human rights.
The unification ministry said last week that it will develop a three-year plan aimed at improving human rights in the North. In part, this is a legal requirement under our North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016. It appears to be new because the previous government chose to keep quiet in the issue.
But the government is not simply obeying the law. In an interagency meeting, Deputy Unification Minister Kim Ki-woong said the plan was also being driven by a “desire to improve the quality of life” of North Koreans. In other words, there is some expectation that this policy will succeed.
This raises several questions. The first might be, Is President Yoon sincere? Given his tough policy – he has warned that any military actions will be met with retaliation – and North Korea’s extreme aversion to criticism, is human rights not just a club with which to beat them? For some people, it might even seem to be a deliberate strategy to avoid progress.
Among his predecessors, those who were most keen to engage North Korea and achieve a breakthrough were the quietest on human rights for North Koreans. Why? Not because they were illiberal. Those same people spoke most loudly about human rights at home for South Koreans. It was because they hoped that restraint would achieve more. Their calculation was that increased politeness would encourage engagement and that increased engagement would lead in time to improvement in North Korea.
Most of us understand this calculation. But at the same time, we understand that it can appeal unethical to do business with human rights abusers while saying nothing.
We have seen a version of this dilemma play out on the global stage in the last three weeks at the World Cup in Qatar. The Gulf state has been criticized on human rights grounds over its treatment of women, LGBTQ+ people and migrant workers. People such as David Beckham, who is a high profile “ambassador” promoting Qatar, are criticized as if they don’t care that people suffer.
Now, you might feel that it is inappropriate to criticize other countries. After all, we believe in the sovereignty of nations. Should we not respect others and not try to foist our values onto them? Yes, this does seem reasonable, except that we also believe that human rights are universal. Ultimately, we are human beings first and citizens of nations second. When people are suffering in one unfree nation, it is the duty of citizens in free nations who are aware of their suffering to do something.
If it is our duty to do something, then surely the real question is what will be most effective? In other words, will a policy to push North Korea on human rights do any good? Or is the approach of previous governments actually more likely to be effective in the long run?
I am inclined to favor the latter course, the one of discretion. I am influenced by what I saw in Korea in the 1980s at the start of my career. Former US President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s had frequently demanded that Korea, then under the dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee, improve human rights. But his successor, Ronald Reagan, was relatively quiet on the matter and more publicly supportive of Korea under the new dictator, Chun Doo-hwan. In terms of effectiveness, Carter only succeeded in annoying Park. While Reagan kept quiet in public, he got Chun to commit in private at their first meeting in 1981 to stepping down at the end of his single presidential term. Ultimately, this helped usher in democracy.
But there is another consideration besides effectiveness and it is one that makes me supportive of the government’s new plan.
That is that while it would be good to be able to influence the regime in North Korea and improve the life of the citizens there, the main duty of South Korea’s government is to this nation and its citizens. From this point of view, taking a strong stand on human rights is good and necessary.
It seems to me that one thing that is distinguishing the administration of President Yoon from his predecessors is that South Korea is now articulating its values on the international stage more boldly and clearly than ever before.
In the past, we tended to act according to the old idea of the “shrimp caught between the fighting whales” and figure how to best position ourselves to survive. So, we told the Americans what they wanted to hear, we told the Chinese what they wanted to hear and avoided upsetting them. We allowed anti-US demonstrations and cursed at Japan, knowing that, unlike the Chinese, they are democratic and would not retaliate.
This, you could say, was the behavior of a teenage nation. But now we are grown up. Korea is a European-sized power and one of the world’s most important countries. By declaring that our values of those of a democracy and by publicly siding with the democratic camp, President Yoon is saying, “we are now an adult nation.”
This is also how we must present our face to North Korea’s leaders. Instead of pretending to agree with them and instead of trying too hard to please them, we must be clear with them about our values. For example, instead of suppressing the freedom of expression of South Korean critics of North Korea to keep Kim Jong-un happy, we should treat their freedom to express themselves – even if we disagree with what they are saying – as sacred and defend it.
One day, when they are free, the North Koreans will thank us for that.
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