President Lee Should Bring Freedom and Human Rights to North Korean People

Lee Myung Bak government has declared its position on North Korean human rights issues for the first time on the international stage.

“The Republic of Korea… called upon the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to take measures to address the international community’s concern that the human rights situation in that country had not improved.,” said Park In Kook, South Korean representative to the United Nations and Deputy Minister for International Organizations and Global Issues of ROK at the UN Human Rights Council, which opened its seventh session on March 3 in Geneva.

Under the leadership of former President Roh Moo Hyun, South Korea remained blind to North Korea’s human rights abuses. Five human rights resolutions on North Korea were brought to the UN for a vote during his presidency. However, South Korea was either absent (in 2003) or abstained from voting on the resolutions (in 2004, 2005 and 2007) except the year 2006 when North Korea launched a nuclear test. His government made an excuse that the choice was made based on the consideration of the unique nature of inter-Korean relations.

Unlike its predecessor, Lee Myung Bak government has clearly declared that it would likely vote in favor if a human rights resolution on North Korea is presented for a vote at the UN. Its representative to the UN said, “The Council should be equipped with the appropriate mechanisms to effectively respond to persistent and gross violations of human rights,” adding that country-specific resolutions are the mechanism designed to best serve this function.

From that statement, it seems clear that Lee Myung Bak government underscores human rights as a universal value, as compared to its predecessors Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun governments, which stressed the “unique nature of inter-Korean relations under the principles of reconciliation and co-operation between two Koreas.

South Korea’s new attitude toward North Korea’s human rights issues does not come as a surprise. President Lee Myung Bak used to say prior to his inauguration that his government would adopt the principles of “pragmatism” and “reciprocity” regarding inter-Korean relations and would not turn to a blind eye to North Korea’s human rights abuses but address them based on the universal standards of human rights

New South Korean government did what it is supposed to do as one of the UN Human Rights Council member states. In fact, its approach to North Korean human rights abuses is a stark comparison to those of the former S. Korean governments which appeased the North Korean regime and made a great fuss about the so called unique nature of inter-Korean relations. It appears that Lee Myung Bak government is winning praise for carrying out the expected duty of upholding the universal standards of human rights.

The international Community started paying attention to North Korean human rights abuses five years ago, and since then has performed a variety of activities. For instance, the UN adopted a series of human rights resolutions against North Korea and appointed a Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK). In addition, there are those NGOs dedicated to human rights in North Korea which have tried to bring Kim Jong Il to trial at the International Criminal Court for human rights violation.

During the same period of years, however, Roh Moo Hyun government remained blind to the cries of the international community regarding North Korea’s gross human rights situation. Instead, it continued to hold on to the theme of “mutual assistance of Korean people.” To the disappointment of many, South Korean government did nothing and stood by idly when the international community took a step forward to improve North Korea’s human rights situation year after year.

It is a good thing that South Korean government has finally shown concerns about North Korea’s human rights problem and called for appropriate actions. If Lee Myung Bak government wants to catch up with the past five years of efforts of the international community to improve human rights in North Korea, the government must adopt “Human Rights Diplomacy” and continue to pursue it.

On the human rights front, Lee Myung Bak government has already made some progress. Not only did it express its commitment to human rights at the UN Human Rights Council but also decided to establish a department which deals with human rights situation of North Korea and POWs within the Unification Ministry. In addition, the National Human Rights Commission of ROK which used to turn deaf ear to North Korea human rights issues has recently declared as one of its missions for 2008 that it would address human rights abuses of North Korea.

Small efforts for human rights would not lead to a dramatic change in the human rights situation in North Korea. However, if the government of South Korea continues to pursue its commitment for human rights for the next five years, that would put huge pressure on the Kim Jong Il regime. In fact, North Korea would find it difficult to adjust to the changed attitude of South Korean government because it has become accustomed to the appeasement of South Korea over the past ten years.

President Lee said in his “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness” initiative, “If North Korea gives up its nuclear programs and open its doors to the world, a new era for inter-Korean cooperation will rise.” The initiative aims to improve the living conditions of North Korean people. Nevertheless, history tells us that quality of life would not improve unless human rights are respected.

North Korea would likely oppose any efforts to bring light into its human rights situation. Nonetheless, as long as President Lee does not step back from his positions which distinguishes issues of human rights from issues of inter-Korean relations and addresses the country’s human rights violations from universal standards of human rights, he will help put an end to the world’s worst despotic regime and bring freedom and human rights to North Korean people.