Academic journal article Development and Society

Two Concepts of Human Rights in Contemporary Korea

Academic journal article Development and Society

Two Concepts of Human Rights in Contemporary Korea

Article excerpt

The paper looks at the emergence of two distinct concepts of human rights in contemporary Korea. The first, more time-tested concept draws upon the historical experience of pro-democracy movements dating back to the 1970s. The second concept is seen to be a relatively new phenomenon which started as a less conspicuous counterdiscourse of human rights of the past but has gained some prominence in recent years. The divergence of the human rights concept along the two different narratives has had ramifications far beyond the confines of domestic human rights promotion. It is argued that the contrasting concepts have evolved and taken shape over the years following the 1987 democratization. Several broad trends and events in the post-democratization period have helped the competing concepts to develop their distinctive contours and to bring their respective policy options into sharper focus. The contributing trends are four-fold: first, the institutionalization of human rights; second, changes in perceived relationship between human rights and democracy, and the proliferation of rights discourse; third, the predominance and penetration of a neoliberal economic doctrine in many spheres of the society; and fourth, the internationalization of the North Korean human rights issue. The corollary of this trend is the bifurcation between the two seemingly irreconcilable concepts of human rights, i.e. the maximalist, civil society-oriented concept versus the minimalist, less liberal internationalist human rights concept. Each of the two has its own share of strengths and weaknesses. The future of human rights in Korea is likely to depend upon the interplay between, and the possible reconfiguration of, these two concepts.

Keywords: human rights concept, democracy, maximalist, minimalist, Korea

Introduction

By the time the former authoritarian regime gave way to more pluralist democratic politics in Korea after the late 1980s the concept of human rights was almost synonymous with the typical notion of human rights as the individual's last resort against the state's repression. Resonated time and again in the public understanding of human rights before the 1987 watershed was the theme of defending human dignity in the face of the state's blatant disregard for the freedom of citizens. As described in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all" was indeed seen to be "the foundation of freedom, justice and peace" by the public. Such was the draconian nature of human rights abuses during the authoritarian period that the narrative of human rights at the time revolved around a straightforward, almost homogeneous interpretation: human rights must be an end to and a valuable means for democracy and also a protective shield against arbitrary deprivation of human life and respect (Kim, 2001). To the extent that the 'mainstream' or 'traditional' view of human rights was clearly defined, however, there were very few, if any, coherent counter-arguments against the prevailing concept. While the former was abundantly documented and reported (cf. Amnesty International, 1986; Asia Watch Committee, 1987; Ranard, 1980), the latter existed only as a rather defensive argument based on the 'necessary evil' logic under the circumstances of political exigency ("The temporary suspension of human rights may be justified in the face of the national security threat.") or as conservatives' vague antithetical sentiment against 'rights talk' ("Human rights advocates are trouble-makers at best and communist bedfellows at worst."). This meant that although there were severe restrictions on citizens' freedom in all their guises in the past there existed a largely undisputed ideal of 'universal' human rights. This is an interesting point of departure from a more articulated, albeit flawed, form of counterconcept of human rights such as the one illustrated by the so-called 'Asian value' debate (Bell, 1996; Kim, 1994; Zakaria, 1994). …

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