Sat, Jan 21, 2006 - Page 9 News List

South Korea appeases the North at the expense of human rights

By Richard Halloran

Among the policy differences dividing the US and South Korea, one that stands out is divergence over the issue of North Korea's abuses of the human rights of its citizens.

In the US, President George W. Bush, both houses of Congress and private, bipartisan committees have condemned the North Korean abuses and have urged South Koreans to do likewise. In Seoul, US Ambassador Alexander Vershbow has been particularly outspoken.

Just this week, Vershbow chided the South Koreans for not standing up to the North Koreans.

"I think all South Koreans," he said, "should be worried about [a] regime that threatens its own people so badly, that wastes its scarce resources on nuclear weapons and that engages in counterfeiting, drug trafficking, money laundering and the export of dangerous military technologies."

Instead, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who was a human rights lawyer before entering elective politics, has been strangely subdued on this question. Senior officials of his government have argued that it is better to be "prudent" than to provoke the North Koreans with criticism. Some have demanded that the US ambassador be recalled.

In a press conference with Bush during his visit to South Korea in November, Roh asserted in a convoluted argument that his approach on the North Korean human rights issue was similar to that of US president Abraham Lincoln in freeing the slaves during the American Civil War.

"President Lincoln's first priority was unity among the states of America," Roh said in reference to the reunification of Korea. "I think that this is quite similar to the position we are taking when it comes to North Korean human rights issues."

The dispute over how to handle this issue comes against a backdrop of rising anti-Americanism in Korea and a nascent anti-Korean backlash in the US. In particular, Washington and Seoul disagree over how to negotiate with Pyongyang on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, with the Americans taking a hard line and the South Koreans advocating "flexibility."

The US and South Korea disagree on military matters. The South Koreans have said they will cut their troop deployments in Iraq by one-third this year, while the Americans will move forces from positions close to the demilitarized zone dividing the peninsula to camps further south despite South Korean objections.

Command of Korean forces in wartime is in dispute. Indeed, relations between the US and South Korea have deteriorated so much that some Korea specialists have begun to privately speculate that the alliance will be diluted or possibly dissolved in five to eight years, even though Bush and Roh have proclaimed them to be in good shape.

A particular point of contention has been two reports issued by the non-profit US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The first, Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea, said that 1 million North Koreans, or about 5 percent of the population, had died of famine over the last two decades because "the government was culpably slow to take the necessary steps to guarantee adequate food supplies."

Written by Stephan Haggard of the University of California, San Diego, and Marcus Noland of the Institute of International Economics in Washington, the report concluded: "It is difficult to imagine a famine of this magnitude, or chronic food shortages of this duration, occurring in a regime that protected basic political and civil liberties."

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