Seoul Still Ill-Equipped to Deal with N.Korean Rights Abuses

      January 18, 2010 12:32

      UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Vitit Muntarbhorn in an interview Friday pointed out that the Roh Moo-hyun administration used the term "missing people" instead of "abduction victims" in referring to South Koreans who were kidnapped in the North's bizarre campaign of the 1970s and 80s. That is therefore the term used in UN reports, which causes the issue to be given lower priority.

      Muntarbhorn was apparently criticizing the Roh administration's reticence in demanding the release not just of the abduction victims but of South Korean prisoners of war who still languish in the North as well. Unable to ignore mounting public pressure, the Roh administration finally broached that subject in talks with North Korean officials, but when North Korea denied the existence of either, the administration obediently settled for the ambiguous term, namely "people who went missing during and after the war."

      Muntarbhorn also talked about Seoul's North Korean human rights bill, which has yet to be passed by the National Assembly. South Korea would be able to produce good results if it deals with the issue based on international standards, he said. Since 2004, the UN has adopted a resolution every year heavily criticizing human rights abuses in the Stalinist country. The U.S. passed its own North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, and Japan followed suit in 2006. But here, even though the bill was submitted to parliament in 2008, it has not even got as far as subcommittee scrutiny due to opposition claims it might harm relations with the North.

      West Germany established an investigative body in 1961 that spent the next 30 years documenting around 42,000 human rights abuses by the East German government, including murder and illegal detention, and after reunification it used the records to bring offenders to justice. Long before reunification, West German students were taught in textbooks that concessions to or appeasement of a dictatorial government do nothing to curb human rights abuses.

      In contrast, South Korea's opposition Democratic and Democratic Labor parties are blocking government efforts to conduct even a basic investigation on the human rights situation in North Korea. No South Korean textbooks teach students about the human rights situation in the North.

      Given the complexities of inter-Korean relations, South Korea alone cannot solve the human rights problem in North Korea. It has to coordinate with the international community. But it is surely South Korea's responsibility to lead international efforts. To do that, it must sort out its mechanisms to address the issue so that they meet international standards.

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