An Interview with the Chairman of NKnet, Yoo Se Hee

[imText1]Yoo Se Hee, Chairman of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKnet) comments on Lee Myung Bak’s administration’s future policies toward North Korea.

– In their annual New Year greeting, North Korean authorities declared that this year will be a “historical year of change”. Do you think there will be changes in the internal and external policies of North Korea?

The best case would be for North Korea to open up so as to improve their human rights situation and increase stability in East Asia. However, in the long run, so long as Kim Jong Il’s regime exists, it is difficult to expect major changes. We need to acknowledge this reality.

To think that by giving aid, North Korea will open itself up is daydreaming at best. This has been proven more than once during the last ten years.

For example, when the economy was so bad that food couldn’t be distributed, North Korean authorities looked the other way and allowed citizens to obtain food in the markets. However, now that the economy is improving due to inflows of foreign aid, authorities have tried to revive the public distribution system and have strengthened market regulations.

When Russia and China started to help North Korea in areas like security or the economy, they did so thinking that the North would change like the former socialist countries did. However, despite the assistance, there was little success with regards to solving the nuclear issue or the opening of the country.

South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia have all learned that changes in North Korea cannot be brought about through unconditional aid. Now, they realize they need to use a carrot and stick policy.

-How do you appraise the fundamentals of President-elect Lee Myung Bak’s North Korea policy?

I am optimistic that Lee Myung Bak will carry out his promises related to the nuclear issue and human rights issues. Nowadays, Kim Jong Il is probably reflecting on South Korean policy and thinking of a way to counter Lee Myung Bak’s administration’s policies.

First of all, he is probably analyzing why the forces behind the Sunshine Policy lost the election. Of course, even though the South Korean government changed, Kim Jong Il won’t necessarily adjust to the wishes of the new government. Kim Jong Il must be made to realize that Lee Myung Bak is a person who carries out his politics based on his promises and he will be consistent in this regard. If the meaning of pragmatism is that North Korea policies can be switched easily whenever needed, it could send the wrong messages to Kim Jong Il.

-Do you have any advice that you want to convey to Lee Myung Bak at the beginning of his administration?

First, U.S.-Korea relations need to improve instantly. In the U.S., both the Republicans and the Democrats strongly desire the improvement of U.S.-Korea relations.

The main factor that must be considered in terms of policy development is security. To effectively carry out security measures, the security environment must be evaluated correctly. Next, we need transparency. The reason that Kim Dae Jung’s and Roh Moo Hyun’s administrations were criticized was because they took every shortcut they possibly could when it came to North Korea policy, such as secretly giving money in exchange for summit talks. Lee Myung Bak’s administration must start by publicly reporting the sum of money and other gifts given to North Korea by past governments.

-As the head of a North Korean human rights organization, you must have many recommendations for the new government.

First, every single POW from the Korean War and those who were kidnapped must be allowed to return. The importance of these issues cannot fall below the issue of the nuclear weapons or the issue of the North-South relations.

It is also an urgent matter to prepare procedural measures regarding North Korean human rights policy. North Korean human rights issues needs to be incorporated into domestic law. This idea has been discussed since the Kim Young Sam administration, but its time to put it into effect.

Furthermore, a bureau for North Korean human rights needs to be established in the administration. Such a bureau was created during the Kim Young Sam administration, but was shut down by Kim Dae Jung. Not only must this bureau be restored but it must also be upgraded in status.

This North Korean human rights bureau should consult with human rights organizations regarding policy matters. There should be a two-track policy-implementation process that divides policy between that which the government can do and that which private organizations can do. If international bodies and international human rights organizations become involved, the policy can be expanded into a four-track policy.

– It’s been said that North Korean human rights organizations have also started to prepare policy recommendations for the new government.

North Korean human rights organizations have decided to form a “North Korean human rights policy council” to create a unified position. This council will form a solid front with domestic and international organizations that share the same beliefs.

We hope to not only focus on government policy proposals but also to educate the public. To this day, public interest in both North Korean human rights issues and the nuclear issue remains low. The public feels that these issues are far removed from their daily lives. The public’s interest is currently focused on the South Korean economy, but the urgency of North Korean issues needs to be recognized.

By changing the public’s awareness of these issues, we can also change the government’s policy towards North Korea. Therefore, raising the public’s awareness is a very important task.