Controversies over North Korean Human Rights in South Korean Society

Article excerpt

This article examines, on the basis of international human rights norms, the controversies that exist in South Korean society with respect to North Korean human rights issues. The article looks at current human rights conditions in North Korea; the root causes of these human rights concerns; the conditions faced by "displaced persons"; the problems associated with planned defection; reactions to the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act passed by the U.S. Congress; and the direction that should be taken to improve human rights conditions in the country. We can only expect a continuation of debate within South Korean society on these issues until a fundamental point of agreement is reached, one that can serve as a rational and practical basis for improving the human rights situation in North Korea.

Key words: North Korea, human rights-East Asia, South Korea

Introduction

Issues regarding North Korea and its policies have always been under the spotlight in South Korean society. It should perhaps be of no surprise that such issues are being discussed ever more frequently as Korea's economy further advances and its democracy continues to mature. Since the end of the cold war, international concern over nuclear weapons development and human rights conditions in North Korea has grown steadily. Undoubtedly, South Korea's role in persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions and improve the living conditions of North Korean citizens is paramount as South Korea works to build a solid foundation for an eventual peaceful reunification of the two Koreas. In order to succeed, the people of South Korea need to reach a fundamental agreement on the issues at hand. From this agreement, the government needs to develop and employ policies that have the support of the international community and South Korean people.

Within South Korean society, many different opinions exist on the North Korean nuclear issue. Similarly, political parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media outlets show little agreement on the issue of human rights in North Korea. The lack of public consensus on these issues is not the problem; rather, the problem is the hostility displayed between groups that hold opposing views, which extends to their unwillingness to listen to different opinions on the issues. Conflict and a lack of trust persist when what South Korea truly needs at this time is diversity and creativity.

This article examines, based on international human rights norms, the controversies that exist in South Korean society with respect to North Korean human rights issues. The issues under examination are as follows: the current human rights situation in North Korea; the root causes of these human rights concerns; the conditions faced by displaced persons; the problems associated with planned defections; the reactions to the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 passed by the U.S. Congress; and the most desirable direction to take in order to improve the human rights situation in North Korea.

The Current Human Rights Situation in North Korea

Few would object to the observation that the quality of life in North Korea is remarkably poor when held up to the standards set by various human rights conventions and other nations. To date, North Korea has entered into four international human rights conventions: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). From the late 1990s until recently, North Korea has also submitted ICCPR, ICESCR, CRC and CEDAW reports to the corresponding committees, and followed examination procedures in the face of international calls to improve its human rights situation.

North Korea has also made some efforts to improve the living conditions of its people. …