by Yeseul Woo
On 3 January 2020, the first North Korean defector reality show “Go to End” began to air on the South Korean television channel Chosun TV. The series follows the journey of a 12-year-old North Korean boy who is defecting to South Korea to meet his parents, who had already defected across the border six years earlier. The documentary provides twenty-two hours of live coverage of the twelve-year-old’s risky journey from North Korea into China, and from there on to Southeast Asian countries. Dangerous escape scenes are captured vividly. It is the first time that the South Korean media televised a depiction of a defection method. South Korean TV stations have of course shown programmes about defectors from time to time, but they had hitherto been mainly talk shows on which defectors shared stories about their defection and their new lives in the capitalist South.
Currently there are over 40,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. In addition, in the United States, 219 North Koreans have settled as refugees since the North Korean Human Rights Act was enacted in 2004, which aims to help defectors fleeing the regime by making them eligible for political asylum in the United States. Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, along with countries south of the Chinese border also hosts a considerable number of defectors. When defectors flee North Korea, families get separated. Those left behind will face interrogation by state security officials and, more likely, imprisonment in labour camps or execution. Those defected will need to live a new life in an alien society without their loved ones.
The Korean Peninsula faces a major security challenge – that of a nuclear-armed North Korea. The denuclearisation negotiations between the North and the United States have lost momentum at the time of writing, and it is unclear how quickly talks can resume given impending presidential elections in South Korea and the United States. Human rights issues are often neglected or forgotten in the face of urgent security challenges.
One such example is President Trump’s disinterest in discussing human rights in North Korea in the framework of the United Nations. In December last year, the United States blocked a United Nations Security Council discussion on human rights abuses in North Korea. The Moon Jae-in administration has been complicit, preferring to remain silent on human rights issues so as to not upset relations with Pyongyang.
However, why should we shy away from discussing human rights within the security framework? We need to change the narrative that human rights issues pose as obstacles to security negotiations with North Korea. For example, the Moon Jae-in administration fears that openly addressing North Korea’s human right abuses would impede progress in the denuclearisation negotiations. That is a mistake.
We need to stop framing the human rights discussion as a de-coupled, secondary moral issue. Instead, we should tie human rights to the security narrative. What does genuine peace on the Korean Peninsula mean? Surely it should not merely refer to state survival in an anarchical international system? Rather, genuine peace in the Korean Peninsula could only be achieved if all its citizens, in North and South, are safe from human rights abuses. Only then can our societies prosper and find peace internally but also externally. However, the reality is far from it. According to the North Korean Human Rights Investigation Committee (COI), North Korea’s human rights violations are so ubiquitous that there is no point in measuring them anymore. According to the 2019 World Freedom Report, the current situation of human rights in North Korea over the past 47 years ranks as the worst across the world.
Last December, ten public figures from twenty-two nations and 67 NGOs from around the world sent a letter to President Moon Jae-in urging him not to ignore human rights abuses in North Korea. Signatories included international human rights organisations like the International Federation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch; and individuals such as Thomas Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights. The letter unequivocally states that US and South Korean silence on human rights abuses has further encouraged the repression of human rights by the North Korean regime and is inconducive to ongoing efforts to conclude a genuine peace settlement. In the letter, the signatories criticise the Moon Jae-in administration’s refusal to co-sponsor a United Nations General Assembly Resolution on the human rights situation in North Korea on 14th November 2019. Since 2005, similar resolutions on human rights issues pertaining to North Korea were adopted by the UN General Assembly; South Korea had co-sponsored these resolutions for 11 years before Moon Jae-in’s refusal to support similar efforts in 2019.
The Moon Jae-in government prefers to postpone discussing human rights in North Korea until the North Korean nuclear issue is resolved, setting out five visions and national goals for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula. The government made 100 pledges to this effect. Although one of them is to improve human rights in North Korea and resolve humanitarian issues such as separated families, it is a pity that Moon Jae-in now prefers to be silent on the human rights situation in North Korea. This silence is indeed dangerous as it will not signal respect to North Korea, but it will inevitably be seen by those in Pyongyang as South Korean and US weakness. If we cannot even defend our values against North Korea, how can we ensure the security of our free societies?
Yeseul Woo is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and a Developing Scholar at the Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C. She has previously served as a journalist for South Korean and U.S. media outlets and as a fellow at the East West Center, at the Pacific Forum and at the Harry S. Truman Institute.