Beyond Silence and Blaming: Revisiting South Korea's Role in North Korean Human Rights

Article excerpt

Despite over a decade of collective efforts on the part of the international community, the North Korean human rights issue remains prevalent and pervasive. I propose "Korean human rights" as an alternative concept and approach for South Korea to constructively contribute to improving the human rights situation in North Korea. The notion of Korean human rights can be used as a method to overcome the limitations that both South Korea and the international community have faced in the past and a framework for effectively applying international human rights conventions at the regional level. KEYWORDS: Korean human rights, North Korean human rights, international human rights regime, inter-Korean relationship, Helsinki process.

MODERN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS UP TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY may be identified as "international politics" because of its focus on issues of national sovereignty. After the Cold War, "world politics" came to be a more accurate term due to the increase in transnational activities resulting from globalization. The rise in transnational activities encompassed the development of transnational interests and a code of conduct, moving from so-called hard issues such as nuclear nonproliferation to softissues such as human rights. At the level of discourse, world politics seems to stand above international politics in today's global affairs, and it is often criticized for prioritizing "high politics," thus creating a hierarchy of issues. The development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the human rights violations of a nation have now become objects of international concern and intervention, justified as safeguarding universal values rather than condemned as foreign interference in domestic affairs.

An example of such a position is the claimed need for the international community to intervene in North Korea's nuclear weapons programs and human rights infringements. North Korea has often expressed its disapproval and condemnation of the UN Security Council's resolutions on North Korea's nuclear tests as well as the UN Human Rights Council's resolutions on North Korea's human rights situation. Both are said to be acts of interference in domestic affairs. These protests contrast sharply with world public opinion, which frequently expresses disapproval of North Korean nuclear policies and social practices.

Currently, the discourse on prevalent universal values and reality is polarized. The issue of North Korean human rights also lies in this context. Since the mid-1990s, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have demanded that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK; North Korea) rectify its human rights situation. This demand is an example of an expansion of the universalistic discourse. But the outcome has fallen short of expectations, perhaps due to the realistic responses of the nations involved, including North Korea. This disappointing result may be attributed to the fact that each of the involved parties acts only on matters that best serve its own interests.

Does this mean that the role of the external actor has no influence in explaining the unsatisfactory progress in North Korean human rights? Or should the North Korean government-which seems to be unaffected by the towering interests of and pressures from the outside world-be held solely responsible for this disappointing outcome? How can South Korea's and the international community's approaches be evaluated in terms of their actual contributions toward improving the North Korean human rights situation? To answer these questions, first we need to review the roles of various actors, focusing especially on their strategies. For proper perspective, we also must evaluate the previous approaches, especially those on international human rights norms. In this context we focus mainly on the role of South Korea.

Compared to other nations, South Korea has the greatest interest in and capacity for influencing North Korea's current human rights situation. …