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The Peninsula

In Significant Policy Shift, President Yoon Highlights North Korea Human Rights Issues

Published September 21, 2022
Author: Robert King
Category: South Korea

Since the inauguration of Yoon Suk Yeol as President of South Korea four months ago, a shift in policy on North Korean human rights has been increasingly obvious.  During the previous five years of the Moon Jae-in presidency, effort and energy was focused on seeking ways to engage with North Korea.  Little progress in North-South relations was made despite considerable effort from the Moon Administration.

In his inaugural address, President Yoon emphasized the importance of human rights:  “We must actively protect and promote universal values and international norms that are based on freedom and respect for human rights. We must take on an even greater role in expanding freedom and human rights not just for ourselves but also for others. The international community expects us to do so. We must answer that call.”

The New President’s Outreach to Kim Jong-un

President Yoon’s shift in policy on North Korean human rights has been clearly evident.  On August 15 this year, the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule, he announced an “audacious” initiative laying out his administration’s approach to North Korea.  He outlined a program of phased denuclearization of North Korea and the concurrent normalization of inter-Korean relations with significant economic assistance and infrastructure investment by the South in North Korea as the North denuclearizes.

Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations suggested that it “may be the most generous, tangible, and wide-ranging offer yet proposed by South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s complete denuclearization.”  But he added that the chances of success are limited.  North Korea has failed to accept similar proposals in the past because Pyongyang feels particularly vulnerable due to the economic disparity between North and South, and the Kim Jong-un sees nuclear weapons as essential for his regime’s survival.  The failure of the previous Moon Jae-in administration to make progress improving relations with the North, despite his down-playing democratic values and human rights, suggests Kim Jong-un is even less likely to accept Yoon SukYeol’s invitation for closer economic and political ties.

North Korea’s immediate response to the outreach from the new administration in the South was delivered by Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un and a senior political force in the government.  She denounced President Yoon’s proposal to denuclearize in exchange for economic and development assistance as “the height of absurdity” and “childish.”  She concluded, “Bitter contempt is what we will show those spinning a pipedream to succeed in making us abandon our nukes.”

President Yoon Seeks to Implement the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016

The new Yoon Administration has already made a number of significant statements about human rights in North Korea, and, even more importantly, has taken decisive action reflecting the importance of human rights for the new government in Seoul.

A year before Moon Jae-in was elected was elected President of South Korea, the South Korean National Assembly adopted the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016.  The legislation is similar in some ways to the North Korean Human Rights Act adopted by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and extended in 2008, 2012, and 2017.  Legislation to extend the act for another five years until 2027 has been introduced in the U.S. Senate and in the U.S. House of Representatives.  This U.S. legislation is moving toward a vote in the Senate, and it is likely that extension of the legislation will be approved before Congress adjourns this fall.

The South Korean human rights legislation of 2016 is specific to South Korea’s government structure.  While the U.S. legislation gave considerable attention to the admission of North Korean refugees into the United States and encouraged action in the United Nations, the South Korean legislation reflects the existence of Seoul’s Ministry of Unification which plays an important role in dealing with resettlement of North Koreans, and a broad range of other issues involving inter-Korean relations.

The 2016 South Korean legislation provides for appointment of an ambassador for North Korean human rights issues by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Article 9 of the legislation and Article 8 of the Presidential Enforcement Decree).  The law also provides for creation of government organizations and gives a series of specific human-rights related tasks to the Ministry of Unification, including a Human Rights Advisory Committee and a Human Rights Foundation.  The law also calls for the creation of a Human Rights Archive to document and preserve records of North Korean human rights abuses at the Ministry of Justice.  It is expected that these documentations will be the basis of prosecutions at some future time.

South Korea Appoints Ambassador for Human rights in North Korea

During the Moon Jae-in administration, which came into office less than a year after the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016 came into force, North Korea human rights was largely ignored.  No ambassador for international North Korean human rights issues was appointed during Moon’s five-year term.  The Human Rights Foundation within the Unification Ministry and other provisions of the legislation were also not implemented.

Less than three months after the change in the South Korean presidency in July 2022, Professor Lee Shin-hwa was sworn in as Ambassador-at-large for International Cooperation on Human Rights in North Korea.  The Yoon Administration moved quickly to fill the position.  Professor and now also Ambassador Lee Shin-hwa was appointed on July 28, 2022.  The portfolio focuses on international cooperation on human rights in North Korea, because she serves in the Foreign Ministry.

Ambassador Lee is particularly well-qualified.  She is a professor of political science and international relations at Korea University, and she holds a PhD degree from the University of Maryland.  She served on the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund, was a special adviser to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the independent inquiry on the Rwandan genocide, and she was president of the Korea Academic Council on the United Nations System.

The North Korean response to Ambassador Lee’s appointment was predictable.  Pyongyang’s radio station Echo of Unification called the appointment, “Seoul’s vicious political provocation to battle with Pyongyang until the end.”  North Korean rhetoric, trying to sound ominous was more hilarious:  South Korea “appointed a wicked combatant as ‘ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights issues,’ a post that was vacant for the past five years, and it is ardently gathering international pressure against North Korea’s human rights situation, buffed up [sic.] like a grasshopper on a mugwort stalk.”

Establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation

Shortly assuming office in May 2022, Kwon Young-se, the new Unification Minister announced that he would expeditiously take steps to create the North Korea human rights foundation, which was called for in the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016.  The Foundation was established in the legislation, but it never functioned during the five years of the Moon administration, which followed shortly after the adoption of the legislation.  The Foundation’s responsibilities are to investigate human rights in North Korea and engage in research and policy development related to human rights and humanitarian assistance in the North.  It is a high-level organization to discuss and develop human rights policy toward North Korea.

Unification Minister Kwon informed the National Assembly a few weeks ago that he was moving forward with efforts to establish a fully functioning Foundation as called for in the North Korea Human Rights legislation, and he requested that the Assembly to designate its representatives to serve on the board.  The legislation creating the human rights Foundation calls for the Unification Minister to name the two directors, and the majority and minority parties in the National Assembly are each to designate five directors as well.

Reopening a Controversial Decision of the Previous Administration

Another clear indication of the shift in human rights policy in Seoul under the new Yoon Administration is the public criticism of a controversial decisions made by the previous Moon administration involving North Korean defectors crossing between North and South.

In a highly controversial decision of the Moon Administration in November 2019 two North Korean fishermen who sailed into South Korean territorial waters were repatriated against their will.  They requested to defect to the South, but five days later South Korean officials returned them to the North because the officials had decided that the fishermen murdered the other crewmembers on their boat.  This was the first time that South Korean officials rejected a request by North Koreans to defect to the South, and they were forcibly repatriated to the North blindfolded and with their hands tied.  They were returned to the North without the two being made aware of their fate.  Officials attempted to carry out the repatriation secretly but the press learned of the action.

At the time, the Moon Administration decision was sufficiently controversial that four United Nations Special Rapporteurs at the UN Human Rights Council sent letters regarding the case to the governments of both North Korea and South Korea.  The titles of the four Special Rapporteurs indicate the human right concerns their letters expressed.  The four were the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Chair-rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  South Korea was questioned about why the two fishermen were not granted asylum when they objected to being returned to North Korea.

A month after assuming office President Yoon personally suggested that his administration might revisit the 2019 action of the Moon Administration returning the would-be defectors to North Korea against their will.  He told reporters: “The Constitution dictates that defectors are our people too.  A lot of people are questioning the legitimacy of the decision to send them back to North Korea when it’s a duty of the state to protect its people.”  A month later in July 2022, President Yoon called for an investigation of the deportation.

The fate of the two fisherman who were returned to North Korea is not known, but punishments in Pyongyang for such actions in the past have been very harsh.  It is unlikely that the two are still alive, and if they were still living, it is highly unlikely that North Korea would return them to South Korea.  Raising the issue and investigating the case, even though there is little chance any action can be taken, has certainly put the Yoon administration on record as taking a much tougher line on human rights violations.

It is very clear that the priority for human rights in North Korea is higher on the agenda of President Yoon in comparison to his predecessor.  But his is also well ahead of the Biden Administration in the United States.  After being in office less than three months, the Yoon Administration has named and confirmed Professor Lee Shin-hwa as South Korea’s Ambassador for North Korea human rights.  President Biden has now been in office for twenty months—and still no U.S. Ambassador for North Korea human rights has been named.

Robert R. King is a Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI).  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017).  The views expressed here are his own.  

Image from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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