Saturday, May 06, 2006

Who has the moral high ground when it comes to human rights in North Korea?

There is growing tension between the US and South Korea over how to handle North Korea's human rights situation. In the absence of progress on the nuclear issue, human rights are starting to get much more attention. But agreement is proving as elusive in this matter as in the Six-party talks. Fundamental to the disagreement, in both cases, are the disparate priorities held by the US and South Korea.

The US favours an 'action now' policy. In early April the US State Department released "The US Record 2005-2006: Supporting Human Rights and Democracy". In the section on DPRK (under Asia Pacific) the report briefly outlines its efforts to bring the human rights issue to the fore. One measure was to appoint "a Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea under the NKHRA." The report notes that

Since his appointment [August 2005], the Special Envoy has urged other countries, including the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan, to join the growing international campaign urging the DPRK to address and improve its human rights conditions.
That Special Envoy is Jay Lefkowitz.

Part of Mr. Lefkowitz's efforts has been to talk openly against the South Korean approach to dealing with North Korea. Lefkowitz is appears frustrated that South Korea is not heeding his call for them to join the growing international campaign in urging the DPRK to address and improve its human rights condition. South Korea has been prompt to counter Mr. Lefkowitz arguing that their own strategy has merit in the context of its own priorities and that Mr. Lefkowitz is not giving credit to the progress South Korea has made. Notable bloggers The Korea Liberator and the Marmot have both made comments on Lefkowitz's comments and the Unification Minister, Lee Jeong-sok's response.

It seems that the 'growing international campaign' refers, most notably, to the General Assembly resolution passed in November 2005. The State Department report notes that

In November 2005, the United States co-sponsored a similar resolution before the UN General Assembly that condemned the country's poor human rights record, marking the first time the General Assembly passed such a resolution on North Korea.
A different source states that the EU were the sponsors and doesn’t mention US as a co-sponsor. On an informal inquiry at Amnesty International I was told that it was the EU who sponsored the resolution. But that is an aside. It doesn’t really matter if US co-sponsored or simply voted in favour. The GA Resolution, is in addition to resolutions passed by the UN Commission for Human Rights since 2003.

The international angle is a bit misleading. Mr. Lefkowitz blames South Korea for not doing enough and for not supporting the international movement. This message may be okay but it is arguably inappropriate coming from Mr. Lefkowitz - he is the US Special Envoy for DPRK. Perhaps the right person to be saying this is the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights for the DPRK, Vitit Muntarbhorn. Surely Vitit is better spokesperson for a 'growing international campaign' than the US Envoy.

The US also argues a moral high ground in pushing North Korean human rights due to its lecture series. The conference series is fronted by Freedom House. According to the report,
the first conference was held in Washington DC in July 2005. The Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs and several Members of Congress addressed the conference. At the second conference in this series, held in Seoul in December, the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea and the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea expressed concern about the human rights situation in the country, and urged the North Korean Government to respond to growing international concern about its human rights conditions. The third Freedom House conference is scheduled to take place in Europe this spring.

I attended the first conference and would not have called it 'international'. The three main groups, as far as I could tell, were Churches, Korean-Americans, and pontificating US politicians - all US-based groups. From what I heard/understand of the Seoul one it was a similar mixture. We'll have to see what happens with the Europe one. And for all that, the international conference series is not a strong argument against Korea since South Korea has its own series of conferences going on.

This is a delicate situation. Lefkowitz has valid points to make about South Korea’s lack of support to international efforts to highlight North Korea’s abysmal human rights situation. However, even though what he says might be correct, as a US government appointee Lefkowitz lacks credibility as a voice of the growing international movement. His comments are easily dismissed by officials in South Korea as being the voice of the US rather than the international community.

Both US and South Korea have solid reasons for following their different strategies. It is unfair to suggest that South Korea does not support human rights in Korea. South Korea's strategy for dealing with North Korea reflects priorities that are different to those in the US. An approach for getting South Korea to support (assuming that 'support' can take many forms) should include encouragement, sound argument and understanding of the South Korean situation vis-a-vis North Korea; not criticism and quarrelling. As for South Korea, it is probably not accurate to suggest that Lefkowitz is ill-informed simply because he sees the situation of Gaeseong differently to the South Koreans. As for bias, of course he is bias. So are the South Koreans. Nothing is going to be solved by arguing who has the better plan or the higher moral ground for taking action. Both the US strategy and South Korean strategy are weakened by the disagreement rendering them both ultimately ineffectual.

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"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui