Open Letter to President Moon Jae-in

  • By Amanda Mortwedt Oh, a human rights attorney at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

    October 15, 2018 13:49

    Amanda Mortwedt Oh

    Mr. President, please help me understand what it means to be a human rights lawyer. Since law school, during which I interned at the UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal, I wanted to be a human rights lawyer. I became interested in North Korea because it is one of the few places in the world where people's rights are so severely trampled on that the international community has called out its leadership for the worst kinds of human rights violations, namely crimes against humanity.

    What I saw in Cambodia as a law student shocked and appalled me. To work in the defense support section forced me to look into the grey area of what it truly means to respect basic rights for all, even former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. To step on human remains in the Killing Fields of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge was a devastating experience. To see the little boys' and girls' faces in photos staring back at me, taken at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, still breaks my heart.

    Yet we know that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his totalitarian regime are committing similar crimes. I now work for a U.S. nonprofit organization that conducts research and raises awareness of North Korea's human rights situation. In 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry determined that atrocities are happening in these camps and that men, women and children are tortured there. Today, we can actually see these innocents on commercial satellite imagery. Did you know that just last year we spotted over 20 labor camps in North Korea?

    Only a year ago, I was comforted to learn that you yourself are a former human rights lawyer. But as I sit in Seoul today, I wonder if you still believe that all Koreans, and indeed all human beings, deserve the same basic rights. Certainly, the residents of Pyongyang you addressed last month enjoy many more privileges than those outside of the city. We know that North Korea's discriminatory class system ensures the unequal treatment of millions.

    You said at the UN General Assembly that "ending the Korean War" is an "urgent task." Is it not also urgent to stop ongoing atrocities committed against fellow Koreans, the ones who suffer and who you did not visit? Your leadership is needed to stand up for your fellow Koreans in the North, the downtrodden, the poor, the voiceless victims, just as you did for your clients at home.

    As a human rights lawyer, how can you reconcile the ideals of universal human rights and dignity for everyone with the current priorities of your government, which has stated that human rights should take a back seat in diplomacy with North Korea? This approach has been unsuccessful for decades, but my greater fear is that this will normalize atrocities and ignore victims who need our help. Will your peace really be a true peace if Kim still operates gulags, silences political opinion, and crushes human rights in the name of economic reform?

    Of course, I am foreign in Korea, something I am reminded of as I walk by anti-U.S. protesters in downtown Seoul. Yet we are both human rights lawyers. Do we stand for the same things -- accountability, redress for victims, and an end to ongoing egregious rights violations? Or do we now advocate only railways and roads and economic benefits for a ruling class?

    I would like to explain to my half-Korean twins their heritage and life in South Korea when they were babies. I would like to tell them all that I know and love about Koreans. I would like to say to them that even though we all want peace and a safer world, we have to find a way to uphold universal values and face up to atrocities if true peace is to prevail. That is my position. Please help me understand yours.

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