Striving Toward the Depoliticization of North Korean Human Rights

Due to South Korea’s Anti-North Korea Leaflet Law enacted in December 2020, activists secretly sent balloons into North Korea at night. Image provided anonymously by partners of the Human Rights Foundation.

Editor’s note: NK Insider is committed to publishing diverse perspectives from a variety of writers. The views of the writers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the NK Insider staff. 

“If you really want to tell people about the current human rights situation in North Korea, fly there and talk to North Koreans since that would be faster. Why would you give our president an extra burden?” 

These were the words of a South Korean man who works as an essay tutor in Daechi-dong, a district known as South Korea’s “Mecca of Education,” so I was disappointed that he didn’t have a more informed and nuanced perspective. His comment underscored the issue of the politicization of North Korean human rights and the challenges of depoliticizing them.

Some liberal South Korean politicians such as former President Moon Jae-in have made efforts to improve relations with North Korea through measures such as bilateral summits, but the motivations and results have been questionable. 

It’s upsetting when South Korean politicians and others ignore or downplay North Korea’s human rights violations, so during that conversation, I decided to give that tutor a piece of my mind. “You don’t know much about North Korea. You don’t want to know about human rights in North Korea, or maybe you have misconceptions about the North Korean regime.” 

He became angry when I tried to tell him about some South Koreans’ disregard for North Korean human rights issues, but I decided not to argue with him because his flippant remark about flying to North Korea to discuss human rights was absurd. Almost everyone knows that speaking out about human rights inside North Korea leads to severe punishments such as imprisonment or even execution. 

Unfortunately, he also claimed that North Korean human rights are one of the factors dividing the country. Supposedly, those who talk about North Korean human rights are “misguided” individuals who are merely “scarecrows of the conservative governments in South Korea and the United States.” 

In the Republic of Korea, people can think freely, but they shouldn’t ignore the suffering of the North Korean people just because they may have negative perceptions of North Korean defectors or positive views of the North Korean regime.

Some people believe that mentioning North Korean human rights is an indiscriminate attack on North Korea or does not contribute to peace between North and South Korea. Others believe supporting North Korean human rights or criticzing the North Korean regime is an indirect way to criticize some left-wing politicians – like former President Moon Jae-in – who have tried to improve relations with North Korea by downplaying or ignoring North Korean human rights and atrocities committed by the North Korean regime.

Thus, some North Korean human rights activists and North Korean defectors were opposed to various policies implemented by the Moon Jae-in administration, especially the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors. 

According to the North Korea Strategy Center’s report “Budget Execution Status on Repatriation in the 5 Years of the Moon Jae-in Government,” there were 74 North Koreans who crossed the Military Demarcation Line into South Korea in 20 separate cases – 55 were repatriated while 19 were allowed to remain in South Korea.

It’s extremely risky and challenging for North Koreans to flee the country, so when the lucky few are fortunate enough to make it all the way to the border of South Korea, they should never be sent back against their will. It’s well known that North Koreans who attempt to escape and fail will face severe punishments such as torture and forced labor in prison camps.

Furthermore, in June 2020, Kim Yo-jong, the Deputy Department Director of the Publicity and Information Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, demanded that South Korea prevent the dissemination of leaflets in North Korea by defector groups in South Korea. Bowing to North Korea’s demands, the Moon Jae-in administration created the Anti-North Korea Leaflet Law  in December 2020. 

This put shackles on human rights organizations such as those led by North Korean defector Park Sang-hak, who sends leaflets and other materials via balloons into North Korea to inform North Koreans about important truths that the regime tries to conceal.

The law, widely referred to as the “law created due to Kim Yo-jong’s demands,” revealed the fragility of the North Korean regime, which feels threatened and reacts with hostility merely due to leaflets revealing basic truths to the North Korean people. 

In regard to both of these pivotal issues – repatriating North Koreans who are attempting to flee, and sending leaflets into North Korea – the Moon administration and other left-wing lawmakers in South Korea seem to prioritize placating the North Korean regime instead of standing up for North Korean human rights.

After enduring human rights violations in North Korea and eventually escaping, I know firsthand what the North Korean regime is capable of, so I shudder when I think about the suffering that North Koreans endure. 

I implore everyone, especially those in South Korea, to depoliticize North Korean human rights because human rights should never be up for debate or used for any political purposes. People across the political spectrum must stand together in solidarity to show the North Korean regime and the world that the North Korean people must be treated with dignity and respect.

Lee Jia

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