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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 16 (August 14, 2008)

All Headlines 10:45 August 14, 2008


The Seoul-Washington Summit Talks and Human Rights in North Korea

By Kim Soo-am (Research fellow, the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, Korea)

The leaders of South Korea and the United States held talks in Seoul on Aug. 6 and agreed to maintain close cooperation regarding their North Korea policy -- which involves the communist state's nuclear programs, among other issues. In a joint statement released at the end of their meeting, presidents Lee Myung-bak and George W. Bush officially raised the issue of human rights in the North, saying that they have "reaffirmed their commitment to improving the human rights situation in North Korea and shared the view that in the process of normalizing relations, meaningful progress should be made on improving North Korea's human rights record."

The statement drew the attention of North Korea observers in Seoul and elsewhere. It was the first time for the leaders to bring up North Korean human rights in an official document, although it has been mentioned in press meetings since the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak in February this year. The countries' commitment reflects a meaningful shift in a number of ways.

Significant Meaning of the Agreement in the Seoul-Washington Summit

The U.S. has frequently pushed to raise the issue of North Korean human rights in the joint statements that normally follow Seoul-Washington summit meetings. But Seoul has previously held firm to the position that it is necessary to first consider an array of factors -- including the promotion of friendly inter-Korean dialogue and the establishment of an inter-Korean peace regime. This new declaration indicates a decisive shift in the South Korean government's stance.

Lee Myung-bak's administration has set a policy goal of attaining a solution to pending inter-Korean humanitarian issues, including the North's human rights situation. Lee has also expressed his unshakeable will not to deal with human rights in the North on a strategic level, but on a universal level. The South Korean Ministry of Unification also set as one of its 12 objectives to make an "increased effort for improving the human rights situation facing North Koreans," as clarified in its initial report to President Lee. It may be the case that human rights made it onto the agenda in the most recent summit meeting because of Lee's willingness to take a harder line on the issue.

North Korea watchers may see the joint statement as being most significant in the sense that it reflects a values alliance between the two countries. Indeed, human rights can serve as a pivotal issue in this alliance in the future. The Lee government has set as one of its policy goals the promotion of North Korea's forward progress, including efforts to bring North Korea into the international community, so that it may finally shed its reputation of being a reclusive state.

The successful implementation of this South Korean initiative, however, requires that the North move ahead with normalization of diplomacy and begin to improve the human rights situation facing its citizens. Based on a viewpoint favoring the theory of democracy-oriented peace, the U.S. has set a policy goal calling for a solution to the human rights problem in the North, a requirement for the formation of a peace regime in Southeast Asia. In a meeting last June, South Korean and U.S. leaders shared views regarding a solution to North Korea's human rights issue. Their will to move forward on the issue is likely to manifest itself through policy cooperation

The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) in South Korea is pushing ahead with the enactment of a North Korean human rights law. Two national assemblymen from the party, Hwang Jin-ha and Hwang Woo-yea, have already presented drafts regarding human rights in North Korea and domestic human rights, respectively. Yoon Sang-hyun, spokesman of the ruling party, told local broadcaster KBS in an interview that the GNP is in the best position to enact the laws regarding the North's human rights situation.

With the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 set to expire at the end of this year, the U.S. is pushing ahead with a plan to extend the law until the end of 2012 under the Korean Human Rights Re-authorization Act. Once enacted, Seoul will be provided with an adequate basis for improving human rights in the North. If things progress smoothly, South Korea may be able to send an envoy to the North to deal specifically with human rights.

Pivotal Factor in the Course of Normalizing Diplomatic Ties

In the course of dealing with the North's nuclear program, the U.S. clarified its position the North's human rights record through a joint statement announced at the end of the second Seoul-Washington summit last June. But only until recently, when progress was made in disabling the North's nuclear programs, did the U.S. include human rights in its narrative -- despite criticisms from some that the Bush administration was remaining idle on the issue.

In a public hearing, Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who heads the U.S. delegation to the six-way talks, emphasized that raising the issue of human rights in the North would serve as an pivotal factor in the course of normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the communist state. His remarks serve as a strong message to North Korea that the question of human rights should be on the agenda in any U.S.-North Korea talks.

North Korea has resisted all overt requests regarding human rights, defining such moves as "interference in internal affairs." In particular, when the U.S. enacted the North Korean Human Rights Act, the North blasted the motion., calling it a hostile policy aimed at toppling its socialist regime. In the same way, we can expect the North will heavily criticize the most recent Seoul-Washington joint statement, and mobilize its state-run media -- as it has in the past -- as though it were fighting a ideological war.

However, there is likely to be a nuanced difference between the way Pyongyang chooses to react to Washington and Seoul. Specifically, as the North is seeking normalized relations with the U.S., we can expect it will avoid the topic of human rights and simply focus on the success of the recent six-party negotiations.

The Seoul-Washington joint statement may also touch off a conflict in U.S.-North talks. North Korea, which is asking that the U.S. guarantee its security in return for the full dismantlement of its nuclear program, is likely to be extremely cautious about any development it perceives as potentially threatening to that security, regardless of any progress on the nuclear issue. This is the chief reason why the North has argued that the U.S.'s introduction of human rights legislation is hostile.

N. Korea's Possible Response on the Raising of Human Rights Question

In sharp contrast, North Korea has actively resisted the policies pursued by the Lee Myung-bak government, which are characterized by an initiative to denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, a move to open up the North economically and help the nation increase its per capita GDP to $3,000. North Korea has already called the South's raising of the human rights issue an "intentional political provocation" and a plot against the North. In a commentary on the Seoul government printed 100 days after Lee's inauguration, the Rodong Sinmun -- the mouthpiece of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea -- said South Korean "is viciously seeking after an inter-Korean ideological, system-related confrontation while mentioning a change of the North and the human right issue."

The North also charges that the South Korean government is not only denying the joint declarations reached by the leaders of the two nations on June 15, 2000, and Oct. 4, 2007, but scrapping them altogether. Given this political climate, North Korea will likely criticize the South Korean government's policy toward the North more harshly for the sake of justifying its claim that Seoul is responsible for strained relations.

Viewing these developments on a short-term basis, the human rights issue may appear to be negatively affecting inter-Korean relations. But in the long-term, it will likely aid the solid development of inter-Korean dialogue when the North finally decides to open up in a normative way.

The North Korean authorities must awaken to the fact that their nation cannot successfully open its doors seeking only practical benefits while maintaining absolute internal control. It must accept global standards if it hopes to grow its economy or attract foreign investment. The termination of U.S. sanctions imposed under the Trading with the Enemy Act and the removal of the North from the list of state sponsors of terrorism will not be enough.

North Korea must also shift its perspective regarding the human rights situation; it must cease to see the issue only in relation to regime security. It is time the North lent an ear to the demands of the international community, and began to approach human rights on a human level.

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