Beyond Silence and Blaming: Revisiting South Korea's Role in North Korean Human Rights
Suh, Bo-hyuk, Asian Perspective
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. Nonetheless, many domestic and foreign human rights activists have criticized the South Korean government in recent years for its passivity. The criticism has occurred at a time when the international community has been actively involved in this issue, including adopting resolutions to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. South Korea, while supporting the universal discourse on North Korea, simultaneously has a special relationship with the North. The South faces high social costs relative to North Korea's human rights, leading to a variety of governmental strategies: generally they can be divided into a softapproach of improving inter-Korean relations and a hard approach of embracing international pressure on the North. Neither of the strategies is perfect. Whereas under the softapproach, human rights policy has a rather low priority, the hard approach risks exacerbating inter-Korean relations and weakening South Korea's role. However, the bigger problem is that these two approaches dominate the South Korean discussion on North Korean human rights, thereby limiting any other potential alternatives.
In this article, I evaluate the previous discussions on the improvement of North Korean human rights with the purpose of finding an alternative that will contribute toward actual improvement, paying particular attention to South Korea's role. The evaluation criteria are the universality of human rights and its application under the international human rights regime. The "international human rights regime" here refers to implicit as well as explicit rules, norms, decisionmaking procedures, and organizations, which include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and the UN Human Rights Council.
Two Competing Approaches to North Korean Human Rights
As part of the international human rights regime, two pivotal norms were proclaimed by the Final Act of the International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran in 1968 and the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. The former stated that "all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated"; the latter claimed that "peace and justice are indispensable to the full realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms." These two theses constitute the cornerstone of the practical promotion of human rights. South Korea's past and future approaches to the North Korean human rights issue should also be discussed under these two internationally recognized principles.
The Limitations of Past Approaches
Ever since the Cold War began, both Koreas have been engaged in a human rights battle, and South Korea has been educating its people on North Korea's poor human rights situation. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the socialist bloc, international and transnational norms such as human rights began to surface, catching the attention of the international community. The Korean peninsula drew worldwide attention because of extreme food shortages in the North that occurred in the mid-1990s and the large number of North Koreans who fled their homeland as a result. In response, the international community provided food aid and refugee protection programs to North Koreans. In South Korea, various humanitarian organizations such as the Korea Sharing Movement and the South-North Sharing Campaign began to take active roles. At the same time, domestic and international NGOs released various North Korea human rights reports, drawing more international attention.
Consequently, in 1997 and 1998, resolutions on North Korean human rights were adopted in the forty-ninth and fiftieth sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, and again in the fifty-ninth and sixty-first sessions in 2003 and 2005. These resolutions marked the beginning of UN intervention on the issue. Since then, the General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council have regularly adopted relevant resolutions. Through such processes, the realities of human rights infringements in North Korea have become widely known, and international bodies have frequently urged efforts to monitor and otherwise pressure the North Korean government to improve its human rights conditions.
Despite these efforts, the international community, including South Korea, has faced various limitations. The first limitation is the selectivist method of including or excluding one particular area of human rights. Instead of reflecting human rights holistically, only certain ideologies and the protection of the interests of certain groups received attention. With the emergence of modern civil society, human rights were narrowly perceived to be the rights of the "white" race, the privileged class, and males. Even at the end of World War II, developed nations did not acknowledge the rights of weaker states to self-determination; nor did they show an interest in preserving the cultural traditions of minority races. During the Cold War, the democratic and communist camps, with their own interpretations of human rights concerning civil and social liberties, used such ideological differences to disparage one another.
For the United States, the protection of civil liberties is considered the most important arena of human rights, which is also the prevalent thought in South Korea. The mainstream belief in the United States is that social rights are not a part of human rights. Human Rights Watch-an organization that places a heavy focus on civil liberties-insists that the UN Security Council should handle the human rights issue in North Korea.1 In South Korea, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) recommended the National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to its government in January 2006. This plan advised on issues such as temporary employment and labor-management disputes. In response to the recommendation, the Federation of Korean Industries and five other representatives from business and industrial organizations rejected the idea that human rights should include economic and social rights, arguing that "the NHRCK is interfering even in irrelevant domains," and "the NHRCK must no longer interfere in labormanagement issues" (Hankuk Ilbo 2006).
Other examples of selectivism are public executions and the freedom of religion, which are also subjects in which North Korean human rights organizations in South Korea and the United States are actively involved. Viewing North Korean human rights solely on the basis of the right to survival is still another. Such selective perceptions of North Korean human rights are not only erroneous in their basic understanding of human rights principles; they may also be impediments to improving the human rights situation there.
The second limitation is the attitude of some groups in the international community that might be mistaken for human rights fundamentalists. They uphold international principles of human rights as defined by the Bible and judge each case of human rights in strict accordance with it. The Western origin of this fundamentalism can be found in the branch of Christian theology that considers the basis of faith to depend on following scripture word for word. That conservative Christians take fundamentalist positions on the issue of human rights in North Korea is understandable. Most South Korean churches take a similar stance, calling North Korea evil and insisting on the collapse of its regime using human rights as the basis for their advocacy. Among the most extremist church groups, a prevalent belief is that the evangelization of North Korea is the only way to improve the country's human rights conditions. They even advocate sending North Korean defectors back to the DPRK to convince others to defect. One hears similar views from Christian fundamentalists in the United States-views that gained support during the administration of George W. Bush, when regime change in North Korea was US policy. This similarity is not surprising since it has been widely known that the Bush camp owed much of its political support to Christian fundamentalists.
Human rights fundamentalism neglects the process that the international human rights regime has developed over the years. Such a view justifies rather simplistic and dangerous approaches based on a rigid textual understanding of human rights norms. It also fails to acknowledge the interdependence of universal values such as peace, development, democracy, and humanitarianism, while taking an absolutist stance on human rights by claiming human rights to be the most fundamental value.2 Such a position strays from the current trend of international discussions, including those within the United Nations, in which topics of national and regional human rights concern are addressed in a context that increasingly values interdependency. As a result, human rights fundamentalism may hinder the implementation of a rational and realistic approach, making it difficult to take into account the various backgrounds and contexts surrounding certain human rights issues.
The third limitation is cultural relativism, which sees human rights not as a universal value but as a flexible entity that varies depending on cultural and historical background. Cultural relativism is problematic not only because it denies the universality of human rights but also because it may lead to justification of human rights violations by using culture as its rationale. If one agrees with the statement that "human rights movements are always a struggle against those in power" (Humphrey 1984, 41), cultural relativism is nothing like the universality of human rights. In fact, North Korea's position is a prime example of cultural relativism: North Korea expresses its national sovereignty as a right, and without it, human rights cannot exist.3 The basis of its rejection of the international community's involvement in its human rights conditions is that each nation has its own method of dealing with human rights protection (Chosun Labor Party 1992).
The fourth limitation is instrumentalism, which speaks of improving human rights conditions but actually may have other purposes. For example, the South Korean government may bring up the topic of North Korean human rights to pressure Pyongyang, strengthen its alliance with the United States, or elevate its national image. In terms of domestic South Korean politics, mentioning North Korea's human rights violations can be used to criticize opposing parties or strengthen public support. While the intent may be to help improve the human rights situation in North Korea, in fact such posturing does not contribute at all. It clearly creates division among the public and invariably provokes an angry reaction from North Korea, hampering any kind of pragmatic efforts to improve human rights in that nation.
The last limitation lies in the discriminatory approach of objectifying another nation's human rights issues. The assumption here is that a superior-inferior relationship exists between the self and the other. In the case of international human rights issues, the country that raises the issue takes on the role of a model in upholding human rights, while the target country is stigmatized as a violator of human rights (Sellars 2002). In other words, a separation is created between the civilized and the barbarian state, with the former demanding that the latter undertake some sort of transformative or corrective action (Douzinas 2007). In this way, the accusing country experiences catharsis by hiding its own human rights violations and keeping them from being addressed and corrected.
A number of countries at the United Nations are urging the signing and adoption of resolutions on North Korea's human rights violations, but psychological mechanisms are also operating. 4 These nations appreciate the DPRK's unique situation, but their larger concern is respect for universal human rights. However, taking the approach of discrimination or exclusion fails to allow North Korea to undergo self-evaluation and may lead to a distortion of the universality of human rights principle. In particular, countries with a political system different from North Korea's may deal with its human rights violations through objectification. As a result, in discussing a certain nation's human rights, issues involving conflicts of interest and double standards may also arise, leading the parties involved to stray from suggesting practical improvements.
Two Sides of the Same Coin: The South Korean Government's Policy
In evaluating the South Korean government's human rights policy toward North Korea, we must remember certain facts. Foremost among them is that despite the differences in the North Korea policy of different Korean administrations, the evaluation of North Korea's human rights situation and the origin of its human rights violations have been fairly consistent. North Korea's human rights situation has been deemed deplorable, and the causes have been identified as lying within North Korea's political system and human rights ideology. However, the specific directions of North Korean human rights policy taken by Seoul have differed depending on each administration's general attitude toward dealing with North Korea.
The administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun carried out an engagement policy toward North Korea. They sought simultaneous improvement of North Korean human rights, universal human rights, normalization of inter-Korean relations, and the establishment of peace on the Korean peninsula. The administrations believed that improvements in North Korea's human rights had to be pursued within a mutual and complementary relationship with the international community and human rights NGOs; humanitarian issues needed to be prioritized, giving the promotion of social rights-especially the right to survival and the dilemma of separated families-highest attention. These two administrations also identified people-topeople and diplomatic exchanges and humanitarian assistance as the main modes of implementation of their policy (Ministry of Unification 2003; 2007). Improvements in inter-Korean relations subsequently led to partial resolution on humanitarian issues such as separated families, defectors, and food shortages. But the approach of the administrations was limited due to selectivism and instrumentalism.5
In contrast, the Lee Myung-bak administration's stance was that "human rights is a universal value and therefore should be dealt separately from other agendas" (Ministry of Unification 2009, 161-162). In contrast with the stances of the two previous administrations, the Lee administration voted in favor of the UN resolutions on North Korea's human rights violations. Lee's policies resonated with the stance of the international community, but as a result, they led to the deterioration of inter-Korean relations. Emphasizing the universality of human rights did not lead to any practical strategies for improving human rights in North Korea. As a consequence, the Lee administration was criticized for exacerbating the North Korea-South Korea situation without achieving anything tangible.
The common thread of the two different policies is that the inter-Korean relationship is the key to the effectiveness of the North Korean human rights policy. South Korea's effective implementation of policy toward North Korean human rights depends on how well inter-Korean relations are managed. Until now, however, the relationship between the two Koreas has not been managed toward the end of improving the human rights situation in North Korea. Regardless of their policy toward North Korea, former South Korean governments have not actually contributed to the improvement of human rights in North Korea. Notwithstanding activities on both the domestic and international levels directed at North Korean human rights, South Korea has the most information, resources, and interest to influence their advancement. The time has come for South Korea to explore new strategies. Of course, the relationship between the two Koreas needs to be combined with international approaches and contribute to the actual improvement of the human rights situation in North Korea.
Korean Human Rights: Direction and Method
As concerns grow, discussions on how to approach and improve North Korean human rights have also increased. Naturally, the role of the international community, including intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations as well as individual countries, has been widely discussed.6 However, little attention has been paid to the great potential for South Korea-as one-half of a divided Korea and a member of the international community-to play an important role in public discourse on North Korean human rights.
Background on the Development of Korean Human Rights
North Korea and South Korea are engaged in hostile relations and have opposing human rights perspectives. North Korea promotes human rights in its own way, through its constitution. However, the human rights situation in South Korea is much better than that of its northern counterpart. Korean human rights proceed from this foundation, with South Korea taking on the role of leading the advancement of human rights on the entire Korean peninsula. In other words, the term "Korean human rights" refers to "both Koreas' joint efforts to improve human rights through mutual respect and cooperation based on the international human rights regime" (Suh 2011, 171).
The aforementioned problems in South Korea's approaches can be avoided while trying in a practical manner to improve human rights in North Korea. However, considering the complex and dire nature of the problems, several reasons can be suggested for actively attempting to change the approaches in a positive way (Suh 2009).
The first reason is the need to channel into a constructive future what we have learned from the two Koreas' past criticisms of each other's human rights situations during the Cold War. Their mutual condemnation has justified their leaderships' opposition to reunification and undemocratic governance, in the process revealing the difficulty in using the inter-Korean relationship constructively to resolve human rights problems. However, improvement of human rights through mutual cooperation is still possible. The direction in which Korean human rights are currently heading signifies how the two Koreas can cooperate under the umbrella of the international human rights regime that both have joined.7
The second reason is a difference in perspective surrounding one aspect of the North Korean human rights controversy that may not be narrowed. That difference, deeply related to how North Korea is perceived, is between those who argue for the unconditional application of the international human rights norms for the improvement of North Korean human rights and those who support contextual application, focusing on the need to consider factors such as security threats, underdevelopment, the political economy, and the division of the peninsula. In this approach to Korean human rights, these two arguments are reconciled based on mutual cooperation under the international human rights regime.
The third reason for changing course is the need to overcome the ineffectiveness of debates on the source of the problems, ways to resolve them, the role of North Korea, and the perception of North Korea and policies toward North Korea. The idea of Korean human rights prevents the transformation of these debates into political conflicts and pursues a practical goal for all of them so that they may contribute to actual human rights improvement.
The fourth reason is that Korean human rights can be broadly understood as embracing human rights not only within North Korea but also among North Korean refugees, separated families, people kidnapped by North Korea, and prisoners of war-in short, all those affected by the division of and war on the Korean peninsula. An integrative approach does not objectify North Korean human rights but instead provides a perspective on human rights in terms of the entire Korean peninsula. In other words, South Korea can preempt North Korea's resistance by discussing the human rights of both sides, creating a path to active and constructive intervention in the discussion of North Korean human rights. Korean human rights thus is an attempt to avoid the various errors we have discussed so far in approaching North Korean human rights, and at the same time to apply the universality of human rights to that issue.
One must question the extent to which North Korea may accept human rights improvements once they acknowledge the universality of human rights. North Korea's conception of human rights is a complex mix of socialist ideology, centering on hierarchy, collectivism, and economic, social, and cultural rights, linked with sovereignty and duty to the state (Chosun Labor Party 1992; Social Science Publishers 1991). Yet North Korea does acknowledge the universality of human rights. For example, North Korea legislated and revised human rights-related statutes under criminal law, codes of criminal procedure, labor laws, and laws for the protection of the disabled, and signed on to four international human rights conventions. In 2009 the constitution of North Korea stipulated "respect and protection of human rights" (Article 8). In fact, the constitution guarantees "rights of citizens," although criticisms of the discrepant reality continue.
The Direction of Korean Human Rights
The Korean human rights initiative is contingent on the two Koreas perceiving each other's human rights issues as a mutual project for the entire peninsula, without instrumentalism or objectification of the other's issues. As respected values of the United Nations, peaceful coexistence and international cooperation constitute the background for the strategic pursuit of human rights improvement under the notion of Korean human rights. As is the case for promoting the rule of law and the process of conflict resolution, the self-will and ability of the parties directly involved are most critical to improving human rights. With the exception of humanitarian intervention, external parties may play the roles of speculator, facilitator, and helper in human rights cases.8 But great care must be exercised here, for intervention by outside parties with a humanitarian excuse can result in other kinds of human rights violations and worsen the human rights task altogether.
For South Korea, the notion of Korean human rights has two distinct implications. One is to induce the practical improvement of North Korean human rights through South Korea's active role; the other is to intervene in the process of improvement and thereby contribute to reunification on the basis of human rights. Consequently, discussion of Korean human rights must focus first on South Korea's standpoint. South Korea inevitably plays a significant role, since North Korea's general improvement of human rights is a necessary condition for Korean human rights to be realized.
Three directions of Korean human rights may now be specified: contextual universalism, historical structuralism, and a comprehensive approach. Contextual universalism applies the universality of human rights to specific human rights problems while making full use of the internal and external background conditions of those problems for the purpose of practical improvement. As the universality of human rights is a result of various human rights movements, to apply such a historical concept to the resolution of a particular human rights issue requires contextual consideration. Contextual understanding differentiates the universality of human rights from abstract and transcendental cognition as well as insensitivity to historical background, and it prevents possible errors as a result.
Contextual universalism is fundamental to strategies for improving human rights. With specific regard to North Korean human rights, or more broadly Korean human rights, contextual universalism can be specified as follows: universality, indivisibility, interdependence, and interconnectedness. All of these principles reflect the basic nature of human rights and distinguish contextual universalism from relativism. They acknowledge the development of human rights concepts and the relationship between human rights and other universal norms. Considering the increasing complexity of interdependence at the global level, trends of international human rights discussions, and the issues that surround North Korean human rights violations, the interrelation between human rights and other universal norms has a significant implication. Issues pertinent to North Korean human rights that restrain these universal values-such as development, peace, humanitarianism, reconciliation, and the divided Korean peninsula-can provide an integrative and sustainable framework for pursuing Korean human rights.
Contextual universalism is useful for defining the source of problems and understanding the general reality of human rights, while the concept of Korean human rights takes on a rather macroscopic perspective. Of course, responding to specific cases of human rights violations demands protection measures along with a separation of violators. However, this kind of approach cannot be a fundamental solution to ending human rights violations and improving human rights conditions. Especially from the standpoint of Korean human rights, a microscopic approach to human rights issues in both Koreas clearly poses problems as well as political opportunity costs, since it may quickly end in an allopathic response (Park and Suh 2010).
For instance, in the treatment of North Korean refugees, while protecting individual refugees is possible and condemning the North Korean and Chinese governments is not difficult, neither step prevents or constitutes an integrative solution to the bigger problem of human rights violations against those people. Resolving the issue requires international cooperation, particularly between the two Koreas, and it requires analysis of multiple variables, including the source of the problems, historical background, probable solutions, and the peninsular division. This approach is clearly different from other approaches, such as a case-by-case response, condemning the North Korean government, or inducing escape from North Korea. It is a historical structuralist approach, which prohibits the reductive transformation of realistic and practical methods into particular variables or actors and considers historical background in pursuing a structural solution. The primary concern for Korean human rights should be to provide a springboard for overcoming structural constraints-such as division, war, and competition-that have compromised human rights in both Koreas.
With contextual universalism and historical structuralism as the two axes for the improvement of Korean human rights, the basic strategy relies on an integrative approach. An integrative approach assumes a candid understanding of the complexity of relevant variables under the category of human rights. The category of human rights for Korean human rights includes domestic human rights, inter-Korean rights, and refugee rights, independently for the two Koreas. This broad categorization, moreover, may include principles of human rights that reflect the different Korean political-economic systems as well as certain features of inter-Korean relations (in particular, military tension originating from the 1953 armistice following the Korean War). Based on the indivisibility of human rights and the interdependence between human rights and other universal norms, the integrative approach proposes cooperation among the parties involved, especially between the two Koreas, as a fundamental strategy of action.
Inter-Korean Cooperation on Human Rights and Its Premises
What, then, is South Korea's proper role on the path to the improvement of Korean human rights? Here, we examine the two standpoints of Korean human rights: the improvement of North Korean human rights and human rights tasks within South Korea.
In relation to North Korean human rights, South Korea's role could be divided into mutual cooperation among the government and human rights groups and national human rights institutions. For example, the South Korean government might cooperate with the North Korean government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in the negotiation and implementation of a Technical Cooperation for Human Rights Agency; it might arrange a Plan for Inter-Korean Cooperation in Human Rights Education; and it might cosubmit UN resolutions relating to the Technical Cooperation for Human Rights Agency. Human rights groups might draftGuidelines for Inter-Korean Human Rights Cooperation-Dialogue, which would then be delivered to North Korea via the South Korean government; promote human rights dialogues and academic seminars with North Korean delegates; cooperate with the UNHCHR in devising the Technical Cooperation for Human Rights Agency to be recommended to the South Korean government; and monitor the inter-Korean agreement and implementation process. The South Korean human rights institution can draftplans for human rights education, human rights norms, and policy consulting services to recommend to the South Korean government. Together with the UNHCHR, such an institution may sponsor technical cooperation and the establishment of national human rights institutions in North Korea (Lee 2008).
Some conditions must be met for South Korea to fulfill these roles, induce a positive response, and subsequently be effective at meeting human rights priorities. One of these conditions is establishing a friendly inter-Korean relationship through mutual confidence-building measures (CBMs). Facilitation of cooperation and exchange based on respect for mutual systems is needed in order to build trust, which suggests the implementation of previous inter-Korean agreements such as the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement in 1991, based on the principles of independence, peace, and national solidarity laid out in the July 4 Joint Communiqué of 1972. The key here to the improvement of North Korean human rights and the inter-Korean relationship is not a hierarchy of rights based on comparative importance but mutual complementarity and harmony.
Another condition is the amelioration of North Korea's harsh external environment. As international cooperation is one of South Korea's important roles, the overall betterment of North Korea's external environment, especially with respect to security and the economy, is crucial for North Korea to positively react to human rights interventions by South Korea and the international community. An exemplary case is the lifting of economic sanctions against North Korea and the normalization of DPRK-US and DPRK-Japan relations. Of course, these two conditions are closely connected to North Korea's denuclearization. Bear in mind that cooperation between the two Koreas and adoption of CBMs do not replace human rights monitoring and advocacy activities; rather, they complement them for the real improvement of the human rights situation in the DPRK.
The two conditions discussed so far may facilitate North Korea's earnest reform, in which case efforts to improve North Korean human rights are likely to be effective. This coincides with the historical experience of the tangible improvement of human rights in the formerly Soviet-dominated Eastern European states. Even before political liberalization occurred there, Western countries such as West Germany mentioned problems of human rights in socialist states at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). However, such statements were possible only due to the promise of mutual respect between East and West and acceptance of conflicting interests, such as over recognizing national sovereignty, territorial integration, and economic and technical cooperation for the East. After the conclusion of the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975, East-West trust building and the amelioration of the East's external environment did occur through human contact and support for a series of dialogues on human rights (Bloed 1993; Kim 1997). In this process, the protection of refugees and escapees and monitoring of human rights violations in the socialist countries by Western human rights groups came into play-developments that correspond with today's rights groups that work on North Korean issues. For the justification of improving North Korean human rights based on the universality of human rights to be realistic, strategies regarding setting the agenda for North Korean human rights, ways to induce a positive reaction in North Korea, and the division of roles among actors are necessary.
With confidence-building measures and improvement of the external environment in place, the two conditions previously mentioned can be considered in actually conducting the inter-Korean human rights cooperation discussed above. For example, the South Korean government and NGOs can arrange for an Inter-Korean Human Rights Cooperation-Dialogue meeting with the UNHCHR. They may institute a Technical Cooperation for Human Rights Agency together with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. And they may try contacting North Korean delegates to gain their active participation. All such activities would be directed at confidence building. Other measures, such as an inter-Korean human rights dialogue, can be promoted after a certain level of trust has been built between the two Koreas and as North Korea's external environment improves.
The international community has been expressing its very serious concern about the ongoing grave, widespread, and systematic human rights violations in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Yet practical improvement of North Korean human rights has not occurred. Attributing this problem to North Korea's passive response is possible, but here we have focused on the international community's role and probable shortcomings in its application of the universality of human rights. While the concept of human rights itself is universal, perceptions or approaches toward it may differ. Such a phenomenon has been clearly displayed in South Korea's discussion of North Korea's human rights. Here, too, complex inter-Korean relations are apparently at work. Nevertheless, South Korea along with other actors in the international community can effectively lead efforts to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. I have depicted the problems in this article that have surfaced in the international community's approaches to North Korean human rights and suggested possible alternative approaches, with an emphasis on the role of South Korea.
The concept of "Korean human rights" refers to both Koreas' attempts to improve human rights through mutual respect and cooperation based on the international human rights regime. It is guided by contextual universalism, historical structuralism, and a comprehensive approach; and it proposes measures to build inter-Korean mutual trust while improving North Korea's external environment. Korean human rights, above all, demands that South Korea play an active role. Specifically, we refer to constructive intervention, international cooperation, and South Korea's efforts to improve its own human rights situation. Particularly, an introspective response by South Korea to its human rights problems might lead to the simultaneous improvement of human rights in both Koreas. Korean human rights requires South Korea's constructive role and strengthens the possibility of parallel growth in inter-Korean relations. In light of the development of the international human rights regime, Korean human rights is in itself a promotion of the domestic implementation of international human rights conventions on the peninsula, facilitating the emergence of an Asian international human rights regime.
It may be premature to try to demonstrate the true effectiveness of the notion of Korean human rights I describe in this article. The concept may be criticized for its idealism and naïveté in dealing with a country that has systematically abused human rights. However, this concept was formulated based on observation and evaluation of the limitations of the international community's past approaches to North Korean human rights. It places particular emphasis on the need for South Korea's active role in bringing about actual changes in North Korea, and it is based on the international human rights regime rather than on South Korea-North Korea relations. If the advancement of human rights involves transforming abstract universality to concrete reality, the role of South Korea becomes even more evident and relevant. In short, the direction of Korean human rights is for South Korea, which has the greatest and most accurate understanding of North Korea, to take the vanguard role in improving North Korean human rights by utilizing its experiences of the international human rights regime and the advancement of human rights.
Bo-hyuk Suh is a Human Korea (HK) research professor at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, Seoul National University. He formerly served as an expert adviser at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. His recent publications include coediting (with Kyung-seo Park) The Helsinki Process and Security and Cooperation in Northeast Asia (2012) and North Korean Human Rights: Theory, Reality, and Policy (2007). He can be reached at email@example.com. This article was supported by a National Research Foundation of Korea grant funded by the Korea government (MEST) (NRF-2010-361-A00017).
1. For example, the US State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices and the reports of human rights organizations, such as Freedom House's Freedom House Index, all place their focus on civil and political rights.
2. Article 8 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action states, "Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing." The UN General Assembly, in 1984 and 1986, adopted the right to peace and development, respectively.
3. North Korea's expression of "state rights" seems relevant to the hawkish policies of the George W. Bush administration on North Korea. Yonhap News reported on April 3, 2003, that a North Korean spokesman criticized the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released by the US Department of State as "cunning attempts to mess with our sovereignty."
4. An anonymous officer within the European Union Executive Agency stated, "It is hard for the EU's resolution on North Korea human rights to change the general human rights situation in North Korea. In fact, the resolution itself does not target North Korea. It is rather a symbolic gesture among the EU members that they share a common perception on the issue" (Anonymous 2006).
5. The Roh Moo-hyun administration once stated, "Considering the reality of the Korean peninsula and the peculiarity of the North-South Korean relationship, we try to focus a lot on humanitarian aid to North Korea for the improved living conditions of North Korean citizens [emphasis added]" (Ministry of Unification 2007, 154).
6. See "Conclusions and Recommendations" of the "Report of the Special Rapporteur" 2012; Lee et al. 2010, 327-355.
7. North Korea joined and ratified four international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). South Korea ratified nine international human rights treaties, including four treaties that North Korea joined.
8. Technical cooperation is one of the representative mechanisms for human rights improvement in the UNHCHR. On the UNHCHR's strategic approach to technical cooperation, see Flinterman and Zwamborn 2003.
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Publication information: Article title: Beyond Silence and Blaming: Revisiting South Korea's Role in North Korean Human Rights. Contributors: Suh, Bo-hyuk - Author. Journal title: Asian Perspective. Volume: 37. Issue: 1 Publication date: January-March 2013. Page number: 77+. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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