Human Rights in North Korea
By Andy Jackson
While the focus of Pyongyang watchers has largely been on the health of Kim Jong-il and who will succeed him, civic groups in Seoul are marking the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights by declaring September 22-26 North Korean Human Rights Week.
I participated on the sidelines of a similar event in December of 2005. In the three years since that time, there has been a remarkable change in both the development of Korean civic groups dealing with North Korean human rights and the attitude of the Korean government towards the issue.
Jay Lefkowitz, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, also participated in the 2005 event. His position was created by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 and he was appointed in August of 2005.
He has since worked with both the Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak administrations on the issue with varying degrees of success. Then Unification Minister Chung Dong-young famously refused to meet Lefkowitz in 2005. Since then, however, Lefkowitz developed a working relationship with both the Roh and Lee administrations.
Lefkowitz's support within the Bush administration has also been inconsistent at best as elements in the State Department seemed determined to keep the human rights issue off the table in its dealings with Pyongyang. Lefkowitz's frustration reportedly got to the point that he offered his resignation last January and had to be talked out of by President Bush.
I had a chance to interview Lefkowitz via email. My questions and his replies are below.
Question: What changes, if any, have you noticed in Seoul's handling of the North Korean human rights issue over the past year? Has there been any change in your working relationship with the Korean government?
Answer: Since the election of President Lee Myung-bak, we have witnessed a much greater emphasis on the North Korean human rights issue by the South Korean government. It is increasingly clear that Seoul now understands the importance of how the Pyongyang regime treats its people, and the relevance of the human rights issue to broader issues like the security and the future of the Korean Peninsula.
Q: North Korean Human Rights Week (September 22-26) is being organized by Korean civic groups, which is a change from a similar event in 2005 that was chiefly organized by overseas organizations. How significant to you think that change is and why do you think more Koreans are taking the lead on this issue?
A: Since I began my work as Special Envoy in 2005, I have worked closely with Seoul-based organizations that wanted to help their fellow Koreans north of the DMZ. These groups have grown stronger and more effective. They now have a friend in the Blue House. While this is not only an issue of concern to Koreans, North Korea's misconduct affects everyone's security and should be an affront to everyone's conscience. I am pleased that Koreans are taking a more prominent role. Working with free people in other democracies, we can help empower those who ultimately will seek change from within North Korea.
Q: Since the passage of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004, only a few dozen North Korean refugees have settled in the United States. Why have more not been admitted? How can that number be increased? Should it be?
A: I would have liked to see more refugees from North Korea admitted to the United States. Those refugees whom I have met are remarkable individuals whose life stories are testimony both to the depravity of the North Korean regime and the unyielding thirst for freedom that all humans have. We are continuing to try to remove bureaucratic barriers so that we can admit more North Korean refugees into the United States, and we are working closely with our friends in Northeast Asia to try to facilitate the movement of these refugees to freedom.
The U.S. is proud of our legacy as a refuge for the world's most oppressed, and we will continue to work to admit more North Korean refugees. At the same time, I am pleased that Seoul has increased significantly the number of North Korean refugees it receives each year.
Q: There has been some confusion over your role in the Six Party talks over the next several months. How involved do you expect to be?
A: Right now, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding North Korea, and I am not aware that any of these sessions are scheduled, nor do I expect a further progression of talks unless North Korea accepts the monitoring and verification steps that must be part of any serious disarmament. In the meantime, I will continue my work to spotlight the North Korean human rights issue, and encourage practical steps to support the North Korean people in seeking freedom. Obviously, if there are six party talks that pertain to the normalization of relations between North Korean and the United States, human rights will be one of the aspects of any such dialogue.
Q: What would you like to see the next American administration do regarding North Korean human rights?
A: The Bush and Lee administrations have begun to place this issue on the international agenda, and stress its importance to the future of security in Northeast Asia. In my personal view, the next U.S. administration should cooperate with Seoul and our other partners in making this a serious part of any future dialogue with North Korea. Together, we should evolve talks toward a Helsinki-like model of negotiations that firmly links security, human rights and economic engagement. The next administration and its partners should also be willing to pressure North Korea when necessary. The effectiveness of this was proven in the Bush Administration with the defensive measures we took to protect the international financial system from North Korean money laundering and criminal activity.
Q: What message would you like to convey to participants in North Korean Human Rights Week and to Koreans in general?
A: This is a movement that has come a long way in the three years I have been Special Envoy. With the continued strong efforts of those participating in human rights week, it will keep growing. Human rights is not only a noble end in itself, but a critically important means toward achieving the national and international security objectives that are necessary in this region of the world. Ultimately, North Korea will only change, and its people will only gain the blessings that so much of the rest of the world enjoys, through a combination of internal pressure for change supported by those of us on the outside who live in the free world. Having worked with dissidents from around the world, I know of the immense importance to reformers to know they are not forgotten and have our support. We need to stand strong for as long as it takes.
The Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act has passed the US House of Representatives and will likely pass in the Senate as well. The act retains the NK Human Rights envoy position through 2012.
Andy Jackson teaches American government in the Lakeland College bridge program at Ansan College, Gyeonggi Province. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.