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South Korea should act like it knows

South Korea should act like it knows

By Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Published in The Korea Herald

April 13, 2006

While South Korea is now led by a former human rights activist, has a government sprinkled with civil libertarians, and has made the difficult transition to a functioning democracy, when it comes to dealing with North Korea, it is still weighed down by the past.

On March 10, prosecutors began a criminal trial against Professor Kang Jeong-koo of Seoul's Dongguk University. His crime? He is charged with violating South Korea's anachronistic National Security Law for writing pro-North Korea columns and making pro-North Korea remarks.
Eight years after former President Kim Dae-jung instituted South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" towards the North, and with enormous amounts of aid and trade from South Korea helping to keep the North's economy afloat, praising North Korea is still, incredibly, a criminal offense.
Adding further insult, Dongguk University has barred Professor Kang from giving lectures. His trial will continue on April 14.

The National Security Law is an outdated remnant of the Cold War era when the two Koreas were staging a fierce propaganda war - the South backed by the United States, the North by the Soviet Union and China.
South Korean human rights activists have been pushing hard to persuade the government to abolish the law, which for many years was used to suppress dissidents (including Kim Dae-jung) and is still used to harass outspoken supporters of North Korea.

Subjecting individuals to criminal trials and imprisonment for the peaceful expression of their political views is not only a violation of international law, but an embarrassing relic from what should be a bygone era in South Korea. The government should dismiss the charges immediately and scrap this pernicious law, and Dongguk University should reinstate the professor and amend its internal rules to ensure academic freedom.

While government prosecutors are pursuing a hard line against Professor Kang, the government is pursuing a much softer line towards North Korea. For instance, while in late 2005 most of the rest of the world was condemning Pyongyang's abysmal human rights record in a vote of the United Nations General Assembly, South Korea meekly abstained.
The resolution laid out the facts about the North's wholesale repression of its people and urged North Korea to engage in dialogue with United Nations human rights experts, who it has refused to meet.

South Korea, which has an otherwise strong voting record on human rights at the United Nations, could not bring itself to vote for the resolution. The government asserts that the best way to approach North Korea is through quiet diplomacy and engagement, including large-scale aid and trade. This, it argues, provides the most hopeful route for turning North Korea, which for decades has isolated itself from most of the rest of the world, into a more normal member of the community of nations. In this way, it argues, North Korea's human rights conditions will gradually improve.

Eight years into this engagement policy, however, there is no discernible sign of human rights improvements in North Korea. All basic freedoms remain repressed. Instead of opening up, late last year Pyongyang asked the World Food Program and humanitarian agencies providing vital food aid to leave the country, apparently fearful that foreign eyes and ears would undermine Kim Jong-il's dictatorship.

South Korean officials argue that they must protect their vital interests in family reunions, the fate of missing and kidnapped South Koreans, and keeping peace on the peninsula. They explain that their options are limited because North Korea is such a difficult and unpredictable partner - especially when it comes to human rights. They point to the fact that North Korea cut off all dialogue for ten months after South Korea flew 468 North Korean refugees from Vietnam to the South in July 2004.

Yet giving North Korea an effective veto over South Korea's ability to raise difficult issues, even in private, is not only unwise, but fails to take into account the fact that, for economic and political reasons, North Korea needs South Korea more than ever. Bilateral trade last year surpassed $1 billion. South Korea is the biggest provider of food for the North's hungry people. South Korea is also running several large joint business projects with North Korea which serve as an important source of foreign currency for the North.

No one expects South Korean advocacy on human rights to lead to change in North Korea overnight. But no change is likely to come without pressure from outside, and pressure from outside is unlikely to be effective without South Korean leadership. Seoul needs to find its voice on North Korea's human rights conditions. It should look for and take every opportunity to press and persuade Pyongyang to improve its human rights record. After all, North Korea's economic development and international standing depends on good relations with Seoul. Pyongyang knows that. Seoul should act like it knows that, too.

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