On March 9, South Korean voters will select their next president for a five-year term. The South Korean constitution limits presidents to a single term, so there is no incumbent in the race.
The presidential campaign is a contest between Lee Jae-myung, candidate of the progressive Democratic Party of current president Moon Jae-in, and Yoon Seok-yeol, candidate of the conservative People Power Party. The electoral contest thus far has focused more on personal attacks against the candidates and their family members, and opinion polling indicates that the voting public are weary of negative campaigning. Some fear that voters’ electoral decision will ultimately come down to voting for the candidate they least dislike. Another problem for both leading candidates is that younger voters are disillusioned with both candidates, and voters in their 20s and 30s could make up a third of voters in the upcoming election. These younger voters were the principal reason the opposition People Power Party upset the governing Democratic Party candidates in the mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan by striking majorities in the local elections nine months ago.
The substantive issues that are of greatest concern to potential voters, according to recent Gallup polling, are domestic issues—housing prices, household debt, a struggling economy in need of a stimulus, and the frustrations of dealing with the impacts of the COVID pandemic. Foreign policy does not stand out as an important or divisive issue in this election. Issues of concern with North Korea are minor by comparison to other issues; only 5 or 6 percent of potential voters consider policy toward North Korea to be an important issue.
The two leading presidential candidates seem to be taking similar positions on foreign policy issues involving the major South Korean international issues, including relations with the United States and China. The issues are obviously related. Beijing has taken an increasingly forceful international posture on the South China Sea, seizing control in Hong Kong, greater aggressiveness toward Taiwan, and pushback in the face of international pressure for Beijing’s abusive treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang.
China’s greater assertiveness has made the South Koreas more cautious and emphasized the value and importance of Seoul’s relationship with the United States. That was increasingly the case as the presidency of Moon Jae-in progressed, and it will likely remain a key element of South Korea foreign policy regardless of which candidate is Moon’s successor in the Blue House. Differences do exist, however, on the question of what course South Korea should take on human rights issues involving North Korea.
Moon Jae-in Minimized Human Rights in the Effort to Improve North-South Relations
Early in his administration President Moon made clear his intention to give particular attention to bridging the gap between North and South, appropriately spelled out in a speech in Berlin, Germany, in July 2017. (See Stephan Haggard’s analysis of the speech.) Little more than a year after the Berlin speech, President Moon held three inter-Korean summits with Kim Jong-un—two on the DMZ and a third a much larger and longer event in Pyongyang with South Korean economic leaders and an excursion for Moon to climb Mount Paektu. An inter-Korean joint liaison office was established, and the inter-Korean hotline for urgent communications was reconnected.
The price for these limited steps in improving relations with the North appears to be South Korea backing away from pressing North Korea on its poor human rights record. The South for the previous decade has been one of the countries actively participating in United Nations activities on North Korean human rights. Every year from 2008 to 2018 South Korea co-sponsored resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council and in the UN General Assembly that called for human rights improvements in North Korea. Since early 2019, however, Seoul has refused to cosponsor these annual resolutions saying the Moon government decided not to support these UN statements “comprehensively considering the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Other concessions on human rights were made by Seoul to win Pyongyang’s support for North-South reconciliation. Seoul banned the sending of leaflets via balloon across the DMZ border into the North, in direct response to an acerbic public outburst against “defectors” from the North now living in the South by Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Also earlier, two North Korean fishermen were returned to North Korea against their will after they were captured by the South Korean government. They were accused of murdering several shipmates, but the government in Seoul returned them to the North despite holding no judicial proceeding to determine the facts. The government attempted to return them secretly with no publicity, but the news media learned of the action and it became a controversial issue. This action was a substantial departure from past South Korean government practice, and it earned Seoul a strong rebuke from United Nations human rights officials and international human rights groups.
South Korea generally has been consistent in following the tough United Nations Security Council’s economic sanctions against North Korea for its illegal nuclear and missile programs. North Korea, of course, is not happy about the sanctions, but since North Korea’s allies China and Russia are both permanent members of the UN Security Council and have supported the sanctions, South Korea has had less difficulty following the UN sanctions regime.
South Korea’s concessions to North Korea have not had the desired impact of encouraging improved political relations with Pyongyang, however. Despite Seoul’s outreach to the North, Pyongyang has responded with violence. As North-South relations began to improve, South Korea at its own cost built a four-story modern joint liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea—“a gleaming blue-glass four-story structure in an otherwise drab industrial city.” The building provided offices for officials from both countries to maintain contacts. In June 2020, the new building was destroyed in a “terrific explosion” after the sister of Kim Jong-un issued an offensive verbal blast against Seoul. She said the North destroyed the building to “force human scum and those who have sheltered the scum to pay dearly for their crimes,” referring to North Korean defectors. About the same time, the newly reopened “hot line” between North and South went dead on the Pyongyang end of the line.
An issue of humanitarian concern that has been pressed by South Korea is family reunions between relatives separated during the chaos of the Korean War with some family members in the North and others in the South. Setting up such family reunions has been an important issue for the South, but it has found little sympathy from the North Korean government. One very modest benefit of President Moon’s effort for rapprochement with the North in August 2018 was the opportunity for 89 elderly South Koreans to meet with 83 elderly North Korean family members at Mount Kumgang, a tourist resort in the North near the border with South Korea. The carefully choreographed event lasted for only a couple of days in August 2018.
The family reunions took place in 2018 during the time that Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in met three times in just over 12 months. Despite South Korean requests for additional meetings, none have been arranged in the subsequent three-and-a-half years. These reunions are an important humanitarian matter for the South, but the one that took place in August 2018 was the single such event during President Moon’s courtship of the North. The demand for the humanitarian family meetings is important. Well over a hundred thousand South Korean residents registered with the Red Cross to be able to meet with parents or siblings whom they have not seen for decades. These are elderly people, and the number of remaining family members has been declining rapidly as these elderly individuals die.
The current state of North-South relations continues to worsen. Over the last several months North Korea has been conducting periodic missile tests that reflect growing capabilities. In September 2021 South Korea conducted missile tests two days after North Korea conducted its first missile tests in six months and the North claimed it tested a cruise missile. Again, it was “First Sister” Kim Yo-jong (sister of Kim Jong-un) who voiced criticism of the South. “If the president [Moon Jae-in] joins in the slander and detraction (against us), this will be pushed toward a complete destruction. We do not want that.”
The Kim Jong-un regime’s clear lack of interest in pursuing improved North-South relations has been obvious in the disdainful response to repeated outreach from the Moon government. Moon Jae-in is a human rights attorney, yet he has backed away from urging respect for human rights by the North Korean government. His government’s clear willingness to ignore human rights indicates the great interest in rapprochement with the North. Unfortunately, even with human rights issues off the table, the North has shown little interest in making progress toward better relations between the two Koreas.
The Two Leading Presidential Candidates on North Korea Human Rights
As Moon Jae-in completes his last few weeks in office, it is clear that his effort to make significant improvement in North-South relations has not gone as he hoped. As he prepares to leave office negotiations are underway to produce an End of War Declaration, declaring that the Korean War is ended, although there has not been a treaty formally ending the conflict. Such a declaration is important for Moon as he leaves office, but questions remain about what such a declaration might do and how North Korea might use such a statement.
Past or future policy on human rights in North Korea is not likely to be an important factor in the decision of South Korean voters at the ballot box in a few weeks as they select their next president. But North Korean human rights will certainly will be an issue that the new government in Seoul will have to grapple with. It is clear that the United Nations Human Rights Council, General Assembly, and Security Council are firmly committed to continuing to press North Korea for progress.
The two leading presidential candidates in the South, Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-yul, have taken strong positions in the campaign supporting civil liberties and public welfare in a domestic South Korea context, but they have said far less on North Korea human rights issues, but there are clear indications of a difference in view. Lee was a practicing civil rights attorney. In his political career, and particularly as governor of Gyeonggi, he advocated for welfare programs to help lower income families. He has not spoken out in detail on North Korean human rights, but he has called for Seoul to take the lead in improving inter-Korean relations and encouraging dialogue between North Korea and the United States.
The leading opposition presidential candidate, Yoon Seok-yul has also focused more on domestic civil rights and welfare issues. As the leading opposition candidate, however, Yoon has been critical of the Moon administration’s position on North Korean human rights at the United Nations. He criticized the Moon government’s refusal to support United Nations resolutions disparaging North Korean human rights. He said that human rights issues should be dealt with separately from foreign affairs, but he also said South Korea should take a stand as a civilized country that respects human rights.
In short, North Korean human rights issues will not be key issue in the South Korean election and most voters will not make their electoral choice based on this issue, but there are noteworthy differences between the two candidates on North Korean human rights. The change in president after March 9th could result in changes in policy.
A different approach in Seoul on human rights, however, will likely be less important than the changes that have taken place and are still taking place as a consequence of the COVID pandemic in North Korea. North Korea reported to the United Nations that it has no cases of COVID-19 when it last reported health information about six months ago. While there is anecdotal evidence that there have been cases, Pyongyang has managed to limit the spread of the disease internally with the imposition of draconian restrictions against travel and movement inside the country.
Foreigners have largely been prohibited from entering the country, and even much of the diplomatic corps in Pyongyang have left. At the same time, foreign trade has steadily declined, border security has been strengthened. The sharp decline in the number of defectors from the North reaching South Korea is consequence of tighter border control. In 2020 the number of defectors reaching the South was only 229 while 1,047 arrived in 2019 and 1,137 in 2018. In Andrei Lankov’s analysis, “North Korea is a hermit kingdom again.”
North Korea is increasingly dependent on China as its economy shrinks and its foreign trade dries up. The country is so reluctant to risk any contact with foreigners that it has rejected foreign vaccines offered by health agencies of the United Nations (UNICEF). Foreign assistance is declining because of travel restrictions, and North Korea faces food shortages and more difficult internal living conditions. Although the United Nations acknowledged that there is a need for food assistance in the North Korea, conditions imposed by Pyongyang make it impossible for UN agencies to provide help. Human rights conditions in North Korea are grim, but these days everything in North Korea is grim.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident 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.
David Lee, Research and Communications Intern at KEI, contributed to the research for this piece.
Photo from KTV blog on Naver.