Why do former South Korean human rights activists oppose North Korean human rights?

[imText1]When the US Congress finally passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in October, 2004, the most negative reaction came, ironically, from the South Korean government, the ruling party, and activist groups.

The government of President Roh Moo Hyun, himself a former human rights lawyer, had earlier disapproved of the 2003 Human Rights Resolution on North Korea in the UN Human Rights Commission, and certainly didn’t welcome passage of the US Congress Act.

Several ruling party members indignantly insisted that the Act could threaten the peace on the Korean peninsula and damage relations between the two Koreas. For the same reasons, a number of NGOs, including the influential People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, are strongly critical of the US Congress. Their response has been to suggest that there are several ways to promote North Korean human rights and that they would pursue their own methods without addressing the issue directly.

Why, it is reasonable to ask, are they so negative about highlighting North Korean human rights?

One notable factor that these dissenters have in common is that they participated in the struggle in the 1980s against military rulers in South Korea for human rights and democracy. It is reasonable to ask why former “freedom fighters” hesitate or even display negativity about the idea of fighting for the freedom of the other part of Korea. The answer is related to their thinking and motivation when they fought for South Korean democracy and human rights.

The anti-government movement in the 1980s in South Korea was composed of two ideological groups: liberal democrats and socialists. Of the two, socialists took control. In retrospect, it is very ironic that this should have been the case at a time when socialism was disappearing in the socialist mother countries of China and the Soviet Union.

At the time, South Korean socialists fell into two camps. One was a Marx-Leninist group modeled after Soviet Union, and the other group espoused the Juche Philosophy of Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.

Colleges and universities in the South at that time acted as types of “liberated zones” for social revolutionaries. During student body elections, candidates competed with revolutionary agendas, the key difference being whether radical social change would be better achieved by proletariat class struggle or by national liberation from American imperialism. Because the Juche group appealed to a deeply-rooted nationalism in the South Korean people, it began to dominate anti-government social forces from the mid-1980s. The core vanguard listened to North Korean short-wave radios and followed instructions.

We may estimate that over a decade until the early 1990s, some 10,000 “revolutionary” students graduated from college and went into society as teachers and professors, workers, farmers, NGO activists, government officials, and politicians. Although their influence declined with the collapse of the socialist bloc, that generation of activist leaders now occupies the core positions in every part of Korean society.

In Korea, they are called “386-ers” – in their 30s (actually, many are now in their 40s), entered university in the 1980s, and born in the 1960s.

Most retain some common values and ideas. For example, they have strong anti-American sentiment. Since they studied Leninist and North Korean texts, which were banned at the time, the United States has represented the main imperialist force that exploits and oppresses Korean people, both South and North, as well as the world. Unlike in the West, where nationalism is deemed as a far-right position, nationalism was and has been regarded as progressive in Korea. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all progressive intellectuals are nationalists. Korean nationalism provided a fertile soil for anti-Americanism to grow very fast. Recently, their anti-Americanism has been exacerbated by US unilateralism in dealing with global affairs.

Secondly, the 386-ers have a strong pro-North Korean tendency. In the 1980s, they saw North Korea as an idealistic country that they hoped to learn from. Some maintained deep political connections with the (North) Korean Workers Party through financial and educational assistance. However, in the 1990s when North Korea was proven to be in a much worse state than South Korea, as evidenced by mass starvation, and an exodus of refugees and defectors, their love for the regime of Kim Jong Il waned. Nonetheless, they maintain sympathies for the North Korean regime, and argue that its problems derive from American imperialistic sanctions and natural disaster and not from its own inadequacies and policy failures. Were it not for American interference, they believe, the North Korean regime would make the same progress as China has since its reform and liberalization. Hence their contention that the US should not “interfere” in North Korea’s internal affairs at all, including its decision to develop nuclear problems and its human rights.

Thirdly, the 386-ers are characterized by socialistic egalitarianism in the Marxist tradition. They are quite favorable to labor and peasant movements regardless of the actual issues, and are hostile to business. Some still believe that North Korea is a socialist country and claim that although Pyongyang may have its problems, South Korea is not perfect either. Thus, the South Korean government should help the dictatorship solve its own problems.

What they are incapable of doing, it would seem, is addressing criticism that their position inadvertently contributes to an extension of the life of an extremely inhumane regime.

Judging from the historic and ideological background of the former democracy activists, we can easily understand why they are silent on the North Korean human tragedy. The sad fact is that their calls for human rights, freedom, and democracy did not derive from universal values, but rather were tactical tools for gaining political power.

I do not believe that many stick to the same beliefs they had in the 1980s. But it is clear that remnants of their old dogma remain. It is also clear that they are still sympathetic to the North Korean regime and ideologically hostile to America.

This is evidenced by their silence on North Korea’s human rights abuses.