Human Rights Kept off Inter-Korean Summit Agenda
Human rights will not be on the agenda of a historic inter-Korean summit in two weeks' time. The meeting in the border truce village of Panmunjom is expected to lay the groundwork for a solution to the North Korean nuclear standoff. But the North's gross human rights abuses will be passed over in silence.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations sent a letter to President Moon Jae-in on Monday calling on him to include human rights on the agenda. Last month, around 30 human rights groups in South Korea also sent a petition to Cheong Wa Dae. Former vice unification minister Kim Suk-woo said, "There can be no genuine peace without resolving the human rights problems in North Korea."
But the South Korean government is not responding to the requests. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said on April 4, "The summit will proceed according to agenda that has been agreed in advance, so more preparations would be needed if we were to include it at this point."
Kang Chol-hwan, a defector and head of North Korea Strategy Center, said, "The issue is too big to be excluded from the agenda simply because it would make North Korea feel uncomfortable. It must go hand-in-hand with the improvement of inter-Korean relations."
The South's attitude contrasts with calls from both the U.S. and the public for the issue to be included on the agenda of the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Lee Young-hwan, the head of activist group Transitional Justice Working Group, said, "The non-partisan stance of the U.S. should be viewed as normal when it comes to the human rights issue, while Seoul's failure to address this issue is abnormal. We need to use this opportunity to discuss the issue."
The families of South Korean sailors who were killed in the North's attack on the Navy corvette Cheonan in 2010 and a naval clash off Yeonpyeong Island in 2002 are enraged. Kim Yong-chol, who is considered the mastermind of the torpedo attack on the Cheonan, was allowed to visit South Korea during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February and was even given with a security detail. Earlier this month, Kim introduced himself jokingly as the culprit when he met South Korean reporters in Pyongyang.
The Defense Ministry tried to protect Kim by saying that his role in the sinking has not been proven. But Jeon Joon-young, who survived the attack, said, "North Korea killed 46 sailors, but the [South Korean] government is humiliating the 58 surviving sailors."
Kim Han-na, the widow of Sergeant Han Sang-kook who was killed during the Yeonpyeong skirmish, said, "It's sad to see our government being unable to demand an apology after being insulted by Kim Yong-chol. What scares me the most are people who accuse me of trying to disrupt the atmosphere of peace."
Thae Yong-ho, the former No. 2 man in the North Korean Embassy in London and now a vocal critic of the regime, has been virtually invisible since February. Nam Joo-hong of Kyonggi University blamed the government's determination not to agitate North Korea ahead of the summit.
Propaganda sound systems along the border that are supposed to inform North Koreans of the ills of their regime have also played mostly elevator music since late last year.
Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said, "This kowtowing by the government and some news media is going too far. I was barred from appearing on one TV channel for two months" after talking disrespectfully about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister Yo-jong and orchestra leader-cum-apparatchik Hyon Song-wol. "We lost any negotiating advantage by being so accommodating from the start," Ahn added.
Security training for soldiers and reservists has also softened. North Korean defectors who used lecture them said any mention of national security has disappeared from their classes. "We can't say that North Korea is the enemy and are only allowed to talk about the need for reunification," one defector said.
Nam said, "We could shoot ourselves in the foot if we voluntarily choose not to raise the issue of the Cheonan attack, thereby tacitly forgiving the North."