The achievements and limitations of Yoon Suk-yeol’s North Korean human rights

Yoon Suk Yeol, President of South Korea, during the NATO summit in July 2023. (Gints Ivuskans, Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc)

The current administration of Yoon Suk-yeol in South Korea has done more than any of its predecessors to stand up for the human rights of North Koreans. But, following its defeat in April in National Assembly elections, these efforts may well run out of steam. 

The government published a “North Korean human rights report” for the first time last year and earlier this year came out with a “North Korean economic and social conditions report.” 

Defectors in the South took notice in March when Cabinet members wore forget-me-not badges to express support for South Korean POWs and abductees held in North Korea. Subsequently, the Ministry of Unification distributed badges to local and international human rights organizations. 

Also, the Yoon administration this year has designated a North Korean Defectors’ Day.

On April 18, the Ministry of Unification launched an advisory committee for the establishment of a North Korean Human Rights Center. Scheduled to be completed by 2026, the center aims to raise awareness about human rights issues and facilitate international cooperation for improving the situation in North Korea.

Also in April, Unification Minister Kim Young-ho held discussions with experts and senior figures, including former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to work out a new approach to unification amid the changing environment, internationally and on the peninsula. 

We should see these efforts in context. Progressive and conservative governments in Seoul share a willingness in theory to talk with North Korea. But the importance they place on dialogue in practice varies. Given that Pyongyang will refuse to meet if it is criticized, the keener the government in Seoul is on talks and exchanges, the quieter it is on human rights. Progressives have emphasized dialogue and downplayed human rights, while conservatives do the opposite, vocally supporting human rights to the detriment of dialogue. 

The Yoon government has had no exchanges with North Korea but has been more active than any previous government on human rights. 

But as Yoon approaches the midpoint of his five-year term, this policy is facing significant criticism. 

First, critics argue that the emphasis on human rights has closed the door to dialogue. 

Second, they point out that the government does consistently support human rights for North Koreans in its diplomacy. 

The notable example of this is its failure to make any effort regarding China’s policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees. When Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs invites defectors to testify at UN events, it even demands that they refrain from criticizing China over this issue. This understandably leads defectors and rights organizations to doubt Yoon’s commitment.

Another weakness is the diminishing possibility of the establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation. This institution was mandated by the North Korean Human Rights Act enacted back in 2016. It is supposed to have a chairperson and 12 directors recommended by the Minister of Unification and the National Assembly. Among the directors, two are recommended by the unification minister and five each by the ruling and opposition parties. While the government and ruling party have made their seven recommendations, the opposition party has yet to recommend anyone. With the election defeat, it looks like this deadlock will not change. 

Kim Eun-ju

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