Sun, Jul 01, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Human rights take a back seat as South Korea pursues relations with the North

Even before the South elected conciliatory president Moon Jae-in, it pulled funding for rights NGOs and left a rights-focused official position open

By Jeongmin Kim  /  Reuters, SEOUL

Illustration: June Hsu

Human rights and North Korean defector groups in South Korea say they are struggling to raise money, cutting jobs and programs, and facing pressure to avoid criticism of Pyongyang as Seoul and Washington focus on diplomatic outreach to the isolated country.

Activists said that they were disappointed, but unsurprised that human rights have seemingly disappeared from the agenda as South Korean and US leaders met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over the past two months.

“As South and North Korea have promoted this ‘mood for peace,’ the defectors and North Korean human rights activist groups feel excluded,” said Kim Tae-hee, a defector who heads the Coalition for North Korean Refugees.

The South Korean government recently closed the office of a human rights foundation and representatives of several non-governmental organizations (NGO) told reporters that they have struggled to secure funding.

Citing a lack of financial backing, as well as recent clashes between police and groups trying to send leaflets into North Korea, Kim Tae-hee said she feels the government is undermining the work of human rights and defector NGOs.

“I feel that an invisible hand is at work,” she said.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification said that its stance remains that it “will strive to comprehensively protect the civil liberties and social rights of the North Korean people.”

A spokesman on Wednesday highlighted efforts to help North Korean defectors settle in the South.

However, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has moved away from criticism of Pyongyang’s rights record in favor of engagement.

Senior aides to Moon have told reporters that they believe confronting Pyongyang could be counterproductive and possibly harmful to North Korean citizens, who would continue to suffer if their government remains isolated.

UN investigators have reported the use of political prison camps, starvation and executions in North Korea, saying that security chiefs and possibly even Kim Jong-un should face international prosecution.

Between 80,000 and 120,000 people are held in political prison camps, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana said last year.

The North Korean mission at the UN did not respond to requests for comment, but state media have released a steady flow of commentaries this year warning that taking issue with rights violations could undermine the detente.

Even before Moon responded to Kim Jong-un’s overtures in January, there were signs that support for some defectors and human rights activists was waning.

The South Korean government in December last year ended nearly 20 years of funding for the Association of North Korean Defectors, forcing the organization to end most of its programs, move to a smaller office and lay off staff, association secretary-general Seo Jae-pyoung said.

“Only two people... are both working here now,” Seo said. “We have been working unpaid since earlier this year.”

Some South Korean citizens told his group to stop launching propaganda leaflets into North Korea because it would “throw a wet blanket on improving inter-Korean relations,” Seo said.

Officials of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), which is affiliated with international organizations including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, said that they have struggled to win new government grants.

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