By Robert R. King
In just over a week on April 27, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un will meet on the South Korean side of the joint security area at the inter-Korean border at Panmunjom. According to the latest reports, a few weeks later President Donald Trump will have his own tête-è-tête with the North Korean leader, though the precise date and place have not been confirmed, but confidential discussions apparently continue between the United States and the DPRK.
All sides have made clear that the overarching topic—complete and verifiable denuclearization—will be the most difficult. There are no easy solutions, and the position staked out by the North Korean leader is still far from leading to a satisfactory resolution that will meet the demands of both South Korea and the United States. The success or failure in dealing with this issue will be the measure of whether the summits can succeed.
The inter-Korean dialogue which begins this summitry will involve other issues, however. Progress must be achieved on these issues if the meetings are to lead to lasting progress. South Koreans are anxious to reduce military tensions along the heavily armed North-South border. Steps also need to be taken to prevent conflict in the West Sea, where the ocean boundaries have not been mutually agreed upon, and serious clashes have taken place in the past.
For both North and South, economic cooperation is an important issue. The North and many South Koreans would like to see the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex where South Korean firms used North Korean labor in a joint economic venture that provided benefits to both countries. This operation was closed in 2016 under the previous South Korean president, Park Geun-hye. Also, there is interest in reopening the South Korean-built resort at Mount Kumgang in North Korea. For South Koreans also, there is a strong interest in a comprehensive agreement to permit the reunion of family members separated during the Korean War (1950-1953).
The most sensitive and difficult potential agenda item for the inter-Korean summit is human rights. North Koreans are adamant that this topic not be on the agenda, while many in the South, the United States, and elsewhere feel strongly that any summit must include a discussion of the North’s horrific human rights abuses.
The South Koreans are in a difficult position. They are eager to hold the summit, and serious issues need to be resolved. Insistence on putting human rights on the addenda, however, could cause Kim Jong-un to torpedo any meeting. The South Korean Ministry of Unification has led the negotiations with the North on the inter-Korean summit venue and agenda. When questioned pointedly if human rights would be on the agenda, a Ministry of Unification spokesperson stated unequivocally: “The main agenda will be denuclearization, establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula and improving North-South relations. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Human rights advocacy groups have been vocal in their concern that human rights be included in the summit conversation. A letter to the South Korean President dated April 9 and signed by forty international human rights organizations, urged Moon Jae-in to “make it a priority to keep pressure on the DPRK to improve its human rights record and not allow it to be sidelined or upstaged by concerns about the DPRK’s weapons proliferation.”
The inclusion or exclusion of human rights in the talks is particularly sensitive because both the President and the Foreign Minister of South Korea are identified with human rights. Before his involvement in politics, President Moon Jae-in was a civil rights and human rights attorney, though his focus was more on domestic civil rights. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is a career diplomat who was actively involved in human rights issues in Seoul and abroad. She was a senior United Nations official, serving as Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2006-2013) and Assistant UN Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator (2013-2017). For both, human rights is an issue of personal concern and commitment.
Despite the President and Foreign Minister’s identification with human rights, there seems to be little stomach for frontally challenging North Korea on this sensitive issue at this first inter-Korean summit in twelve years. In the past year since the Moon administration has been in office, criticism of the DPRK’s human rights record has continued. South Korea’s UN Ambassador in New York spoke critically of the North at a UN Security Council session on DPRK human rights in December 2017. On the other hand, although the Moon government has been in office nearly 12 months, it has not yet designated a new Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights.
As we noted, when asked if human rights would be on the inter-Korean agenda, the Ministry of Unification spokesperson said the agenda had been agreed upon, and human rights was not one of the three general topics agreed upon. These topics, however, are broad enough to provide opportunity to include some human rights issues. “Establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula and improving North-South relations” can certainly encompass some human rights concerns.
For example, concern to increase information reaching North Koreas has been an important human rights goal. Since the beginning of this year, the improvement in bilateral relations has already involved exchanges between North and South. Watching South Korean soap operas (dramas) and other popular culture programs on television is prohibited in the North, although there are indications that these programs have a significant but underground audience despite the risk of severe penalties if viewers are discovered.
Relations between North and South have improved since Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech and North’s decision to participate in the February 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in the South. In the euphoria of better relations, once-forbidden K-Pop (South Korean pop music) stars have performed in Pyongyang. Even Kim Jong-un said he was “deeply moved” after personally attending a live performance of a K-Pop troupe in Pyongyang—the first live performance in the North in well over a decade.
Although not generally identified as a “human rights” issue, but one that will surely be raised in the inter-Korean summit, is allowing reunions of family members in the South who were separated from relatives in the North during the Korean War. Based on past practice, if such meetings are permitted, they would likely take place in the North and under strict control of the Pyongyang regime. Again, such meetings will allow information about life in the South to reach family members and others in the north. Other aspects of “improving North-South relations” could lead to greater information about conditions in the South to reach citizens in the North.
There are clearly problems with greater contacts between citizens on both sides of the 38th Parallel. The North is unlikely to permit these humanitarian meetings and cultural exchanges unless there are funds flowing from South to North. Nevertheless, there are positive benefits from engagement. Questions will and should be raised about steps to prevent these activities from becoming a means of circumventing UN economic sanctions, which were imposed to cut funds for nuclear, missile and other weapons.
It is important for human rights groups to continue to press Seoul for action and progress on human rights. But it is also important to take a longer look at the process of progress in North-South relations. There are more subtle ways to press for human rights improvement than including key words or phrases in the agenda.
Before criticizing the agreed agenda for the inter-Korean summit it makes sense to take a longer look at the process that is beginning. If this effort is to be a success, it cannot be seen as one day of meetings between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un on April 27 to resolve all issues. This could be the first step down a much longer road that might eventually lead to changes that could bring progress on human rights. It is important that human rights advocates in South Korea and the rest of the world continue to press the government in Seoul to work for progress on rights, however, to make sure that the issue is not ignored.
We need to keep the upcoming summitry in perspective. It may lead to very limited gains as previous summits, agreed frameworks, and international six-party efforts have. We need to make a genuine effort to make things work. We need to press on denuclearization, but we also need to be smart and continue to press on human rights as well.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.