Human rights groups are protesting that the South Korean government is stifling their criticism of North Korea, and even interfering with their operations, to prevent them from alienating the regime in Pyongyang as delicate negotiations continue.
The Wall Street Journal notes that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration recently “closed the physical office of a human-rights foundation that had angered Pyongyang, while a senior presidential adviser said human rights should take a back seat to other matters in discussions with the North.”
The article portrays South Korea’s government taking its lead from the United States, which is grappling with profound practical and ethical concerns as it negotiates with an utterly monstrous regime that would surely leave the table if sweeping humanitarian reforms are demanded:
A senior adviser to the South Korean leader acknowledged recently that the government faces a “fundamental dilemma” in addressing Pyongyang’s rights violations.
“If we push too hard for human rights, then North Korea would regard us as taking a hostile act against North Korea. Then peace would be jeopardized,” the adviser, Moon Chung-in, who isn’t related to the president, told an event in Seoul hosted by the British Broadcasting Corp.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that talks should focus on the biggest threat—North Korea’s nuclear weapons—and that the right outcome in disarmament talks would create the conditions for an improvement in human rights in North Korea.
North Korea has argued for years that it doesn’t have a human-rights problem, and that criticism of its record would scuttle the atmosphere for dialogue. The United Nations in 2014 published a report detailing abuses in North Korea that it said made it one of the world’s worst human-rights violators. Pyongyang operates a vast network of prison camps where thousands of political prisoners endure torture and starvation.
Activists do not seem much comforted by the notion that American and South Korean officials might be pushing for humanitarian reforms behind the scenes—perhaps by appealing to Kim Jong-un’s appetite for wealth by pointing out that few foreign investors are willing to pour big money into a chamber of horrors, or by convincing Kim that it will be politically difficult for the U.S. and its allies to close a deal with monsters.
The human rights foundation closed by South Korea’s government two weeks ago was a state-run operation. The Unification Ministry terminated its lease on vacant offices in Seoul by saying it was a waste of about $60,000 taxpayer dollars a month.
“The move is only an administrative and operational measure to stem further financial losses. The government’s stance to launch the foundation on human rights for North Korean citizens as soon as possible remains unchanged,” the Unification Ministry said at the time.
Representatives from non-governmental organizations told Reuters on Wednesday that they were struggling for funds, and the government has interfered with activities such as sending leaflets into North Korea. South Korean government officials countered that provocative demonstrations will only hurt North Korean citizens by ruining the best chance to end their isolation from the outside world.
One group told Reuters the South Korean government cut its funding in December after two decades of support. Another complained about the new mood of “ambivalence among some working-level government officials and even the press who don’t proactively talk about North Korean human rights.”
“Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general at the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, said her organization had also seen donations from South Korean corporations dry up over the past year, amid changes in the domestic and international political climate,” Reuters added.
The position of “Ambassador-at-Large on North Korean Human Rights,” formerly seen as crucial for coordinating activism, has been left vacant by the Moon administration for ten months. There are concerns Moon will accede to Pyongyang’s demands to repeal the North Korean Human Rights Act, denounced in North Korean propaganda as “an institution designed to plot against our republic.”
A Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday worried the Kim regime will also demand the termination of American funding for humanitarian organizations Pyongyang deems subversive. North Korean negotiators might even point to the abrupt end of pervasive anti-American propaganda on the north side of the DMZ and ask for the rollback of human rights activism as a reciprocal gesture.