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.
Illustration: June Hsu
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.
“There have been no direct restrictions or notices by the government, as far as I know,” ICNK secretary-general Kwon Eun-kyoung said. “But I feel that there is definitely ambivalence among some working-level government officials and even the press, which does not proactively talk about North Korean human rights.”
Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general at the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, said that her organization has also seen donations from South Korean corporations dry up over the past year, amid changes in the domestic and international political climate.
When Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat to the UK who defected in 2016, stepped down from his position at a government-affiliated think tank after North Korean media called him “human scum,” some in South Korea saw it as an attempt by the government to distance itself from defectors.
Thae did not respond to a request for comment, but told media at the time that the decision was his own and that he thought it would boost inter-Korean relations.
Just after the summit between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump on June 12, the South Korean government announced that it was ending funding for an office for a new organization called the North Korean Human Rights Foundation.
The foundation was established under the 2016 North Korean Human Rights act to lay “the legal and institutional foundation for protection of human rights in North Korea,” but has yet to become fully operational.
While the unification ministry has said that it is still working to get the foundation up and running, critics said that the delays highlight the administration’s lack of commitment to addressing human rights abuses.
“I am worried that the South Korean government is tiptoeing around North Korea amidst the mood for dialogue, being careful about the issue of human rights,” right-wing South Korean lawmaker Hong Il-pyo said.
Without the foundation, other aspects of the law, including funding for projects, could be more difficult to implement, Lawyers for Human Rights and Unification of Korea head Kim Tae-hoon said.
“This was one of the cornerstones of the North Korean Human Rights act,” he said.
North Korean state media have called for Seoul to repeal the act and abolish the foundation, as they are only “good for doing harm in light of the current trends of the North-South relationship.”
The position of South Korean ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights, meanwhile, has been empty for nearly 10 months.
“This role enabled us to form a community to work closely with other North Korean human rights activists and experts,” said Yonsei University professor Lee Jung-hoon, who held the ambassador role until September last year.
“Nobody is against the dialogue with North Korea,” he said. “But I hope that there will be discussions beyond nuclear and security issues. Human rights are a very, very important component of a real peaceful endgame for the Korean Peninsula.”
During the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum’s third leadership summit on Aug. 31, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said that the US wants to partner with the other members of the Quadrilaterial Security Dialogue — Australia, India and Japan — to establish an organization similar to NATO, to “respond to ... any potential challenge from China.” He said that the US’ purpose is to work with these nations and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region to “create a critical mass around the shared values and interest of those parties,” and possibly attract more countries to establish an alliance comparable to
On August 24, 2020, the US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, made an important statement: “The Pentagon is Prepared for China.” Going forward, how might the Department of Defense team up with Taiwan to make itself even more prepared? No American wants to deter the next war by a paper-thin margin, and no one appreciates the value of strategic overmatch more than the war planners at the Pentagon. When the stakes are this high, you can bet they want to be super ready. In recent months, we have witnessed a veritable flood of high-level statements from US government leaders on
China has long sought shortcuts to developing semiconductor technologies and local supply chains by poaching engineers and experts from Taiwan and other nations. It is also suspected of stealing trade secrets from Taiwanese and US firms to fulfill its ambition of becoming a major player in the global semiconductor industry in the next decade. However, it takes more than just money and talent to build a semiconductor supply chain like the one which Taiwan and the US started to cultivate more than 30 years ago. Amid rising trade and technology tensions between the world’s two biggest economies, Beijing has become
With a new White House document in May — the “Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” — the administration of US President Donald Trump has firmly set its hyper-competitive line to tackle geoeconomic and geostrategic rivalry, followed by several reinforcing speeches by Trump and other Cabinet-level officials. By identifying China as a near-equal rival, the strategy resonates well with the bipartisan consensus on China in today’s severely divided US. In the face of China’s rapidly growing aggression, the move is long overdue, yet relevant for the maintenance of the international “status quo.” The strategy seems to herald a new