Why the South Korean president never mentions human rights in the North

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk

It’s fine to talk to the North Koreans about their nukes and missiles. Go ahead and tell them they’re a threat to the world, the human race, to civilization. No problem. The North’s stock retort is they’re needed for self-defense against the Americans, who bombed our country indiscriminately in the Korean War.

One topic, however, is strictly off the table, verboten, banned, forbidden, absolutely not mentioned if you want to keep talking to them: human rights.

That’s why South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In, on the 70th anniversary this week of passage by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said not a word about North Korea as he gingerly remarked, “The way to improve the human rights of the entire Korean people” is “to eliminate the remains of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula and establish permanent peace.”

On Dec. 11, 1969, North Korean agents hijacked a Korean Airlines YS-11 commercial airline and forced it to land at Wonson, North Korea. The following have never been returned to South Korea: Yu Byeong-ha (유병하, 38) of Seoul, captain
Choe Seok-man (최석만, 37) of Seoul, first officer
Jeong Gyeong-suk (정경숙, 24) of Seoul, flight attendant
Seong Gyeong-hui (성경희, 23) of Seoul, flight attendant
Yi Dong-gi (이동기, 49) of Miryang, manager of a printing company
Hwang Won (황원, 32) of Gangneung, programme director at Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC)
Gim Bongju (김봉주, 27) of Gangneung, cameraman at MBC
Chae Heon-deok (채헌덕, 37) of Gangneung, doctor
Im Cheol-su (임철수, 49) of Yanggu, office worker
Jang Ki-yeong (장기영, 40) of Uijeongbu, food industry businessman
Choe Jeong-ung (최정웅, 28) of Wonju, Hankook Slate Company employee

Sure, but what’s he going on about? Is he equating South with North Korea, suggesting the South’s record on human rights is comparable with that of the North? Or is he just trying to avoid the topic, to bury it beneath fine words?

Kim Tae-Min, head of the inter-Korean cooperation mission for “sustainable development goals,” put the problem this way at a conference staged by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, which for years has been collecting facts and figures on what’s happening up there. “When we talk about human rights in North Korea,” he said, “that can halt any conversation with North Korea.”

But the dreaded topic cannot be ignored so easily. “Human rights must be discussed at the same time,” said Oh Joon, professor of peace studies at Kyung Hee University, talking at the Database Center conference.

“Humanitarian assistance can be used to improve human rights,” Hanna Song, Database Center researcher, observed, “Exemption of human rights issues from high-level talks does not mean North Korea is exempt from its obligations to protect the human rights of its citizens.”

Maybe not, but over the years the North Koreans have thumbed their noses at offers by South Korean leaders of fast aid, multi-billion dollar payoffs for just about anything.

They are simply not going to consider any assistance, any offer, however massive, that’s conditioned on freeing tens of thousands of prisoners held in the North’s sprawling gulag system for political crimes. Nor are they interested in returning several hundred South Koreans, mainly fishermen whose boats were captured on or near North Korean waters.

One wonders, though, if dialogue between Moon and Kim Jong-un is worth anything if Kim refuses to do anything about human rights, just as he won’t reveal where he’s hiding his nukes and missiles, or the facilities for making them, much less getting rid of any of them?

Interestingly, the day after the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the 49th anniversary of the hijacking by North Koreans of a domestic Korean Air flight with 50 people aboard. No, President Moon did not think to mention that anniversary when orating on his vision of human rights for the Korean peninsula.

Hwang In-Cheol, whose father was never returned after the hijacking, won’t let the world forget even if his pleas fall on deaf ears. Nor does he think the matter should be limited to private off-the-record dialog between Moon and Kim or among working-level officials.

His advice: Get it out in the open. What is there to lose? Maybe Kim, eager for aid and assistance, would at last, at least, make token concessions, most especially as far as Hwang is concerned the release of the father whom he was too young to remember.

“These issues should be raised directly and publicly,” he told me on the anniversary after carrying signs in English and Korean begging for someone, somehow, to bring his father home. “Kim Jong-un should be ready to address these issues,” he passionately believes. “I do not agree that raising the issue will stop dialogue.”

Hwang is all in favor of Kim Jong-Un making a quick trip to Seoul to see Moon but sets one condition: “If he wants to come to South Korea, he should come with my father.”

That’s not going to happen, of course, but Hwang sees no prospect of real and lasting peace on Korea if the South fails to demand the return of citizens held captive in the North. “What is ‘eliminating the remains of the Cold War,’” he asks, if that whole issue is ignored.

Good question.