The window in which the outside world can make a difference on North Korean human rights issues is fast closing, South Korea’s ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights, Lee Jung-hoon, told NK News in an extended interview at the 12th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity.
Once North Korea deploys credible nuclear missiles, Pyongyang “may become untouchable,” Lee said, warning that any additional security the leadership may feel as a result won’t likely lead to improvements in human rights.
Lee, whose current and part-time role was created as a result of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2016, previously served as South Korea’s ambassador on human rights from 2013 to 2016.
Appointed by the conservative government of former President Park Geun-hye, Lee also shared his thoughts about how the new liberal government of President Moon Jae-in will continue to promote North Korean human rights, despite plans for renewed engagement with Pyongyang, a priority that’s historically led left-leaning governments to shy away from the issue.
Lee also talked about recent progress in boosting international spotlight on the North Korea overseas labor issue, and what the implications for that will be on President Moon’s hopes to eventually open the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex.
NK News’s participation in the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity was assisted financially by its organizers
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length
NK News: How do you feel about the possible impact of recent Presidential changes in the U.S. and South Korea, where engagement is now being favored, on the North Korean human rights issue?
Lee Jung-hoon: In terms of the U.S. transition from Obama to the Trump administration; Robert King, the former special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, did a fantastic job on raising the issue and bringing it up in international fora, but the end of the Obama administration also meant that his tenure was up. We hope that President Trump will appoint King’s successor soon, because we need someone to address this issue from the U.S. government standpoint.
In 2017 we already had nine North Korean missiles launched and many more the year before, which also saw two nuclear tests. So the world, not just South Korea and the United States, has been trying to catch up with all these military provocations coming from North Korea. Consequently, it hasn’t given much opportunity for anyone to really address the human rights issue. Everybody’s been just too busy trying to respond to these security issues.
Even for President Moon Jae-in, who’s only been in office for slightly over three weeks now, North Korea has already fired three missiles in that three-week period. So I think it would be premature to pass judgment of what the new administration’s posture will be on human rights issues.
I don’t think it would be fair to say that just because the new South Korean administration is focusing mainly on dialogue and the importance of returning to the negotiation table, to assume that as such, the human rights issue would somehow be put aside. I hope that’s not the case.
“I think you can easily sit down and have dialogue and discuss humanitarian issues but at the same time, address human rights issues as well”
I think you can easily sit down and have dialogue and discuss humanitarian issues but at the same time, address human rights issues as well, especially from someone with a human rights lawyer background like our new President.
A lot of the people surrounding him in the Blue House and the new government, having fought for the democratization of Korea, having fought against authoritarianism, they should know better than to turn a blind eye to this predicament that the North Korean people are under right now.
So I remain hopeful that the human rights issue will be addressed continuously, in line with the international community. I really hope that our government doesn’t take a turn where it could be looked upon as taking a different stance from what the UN is doing and from what the international community is doing, because human rights issues are a universal issue. There is no left, or right, there is no politicization of the issues. Rights are being taken away from the people, it is plain and simple, and that shouldn’t be the case.
NK News: With the precedence we’ve seen during the Sunshine era and what we know about how North Korea views certain human rights as a threat, what kind of ways would the new South Korean administration be able to seek engagement and apply pressure simultaneously on human rights?
Lee Jung-hoon: Never mind human rights, but I don’t even know if North Korea will ever engage on other pressing issues. They seem to be very determined to become a nuclear power, to have a deployable nuclear weapons capability – that is what these repeated missile launches are all about. But assuming that somehow we are able to convince North Korea to sit down in some capacity, whether at the Six Party Talks or whatever else, then we can at least raise the issue.
Now, I don’t think we can force them to, for example, shut down the political prison camps, just as we are unable to press China not to forcibly repatriate North Korean defectors. But simply raising these issues and making sure that North Korea understands that they are doing something wrong, violating human rights in a way that is not acceptable by the UN and international law.
Why? Because if you hear North Korean delegations at the UN, they are adamant that there are no human rights violations, they just flat out deny. As such, I think it is very important that we keep addressing certain issues that need to be addressed, rather than just turning a blind eye and not addressing them in fear of provoking North Korea; that would not be a very genuine bilateral relationship.
“I think it is very important that we keep addressing certain issues that need to be addressed, rather than just turning a blind eye and not addressing them in fear of provoking North Korea”
It is good that we try to engage them and talk to them, but let’s say what needs to be said. What’s the purpose of engagement? There has to be a purpose. We are trying to engage so that we can have peace. How do we get peace? When North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, we’ll have peace. And what’s the purpose of engaging? Well, for stability, for improving the welfare and living standards of the people of North Korea. But how do you do that? First and foremost, you begin by trying to improve the human rights conditions or at least reduce the violations of human rights.
You can’t expect a huge sea-change right away, but I think we can start incrementally – maybe by addressing issues surrounding those who are physically handicapped, women issues, etc. All these are very serious issues, but one-by-one, hopefully these will lead to much larger issues like the closure of prison camps.
NK News: Have you tracked any improvements in North Korean human rights over the last five years, since the COI?
Lee Jung-hoon: Quite frankly, not really. However, you can make a case that they have been a little more responsive in terms of the questions and answers at the UPR level, and they have passed certain resolutions that they hadn’t before at the UN level. But I think those were attempts – particularly in 2014 when the COI report came out and the UN General Assembly was about to adopt a very strong resolution – of a so-called ‘charm offensive’ to deflect some of the very strong wording of the resolution.
Meanwhile, we’ve had some developments like the three Americans prisoners being released without conditions, Jeffrey Fowle and a couple of others, which was previously unheard of. That’s good and the international community was heartened by that development because North Korea would not budge on any other pressures, like the nuclear issue.
Overall on the human rights issue, North Korea is at least showing some signs that they don’t like the attention and that they are actually willing to make some changes to deflect the pressure. So that gave a hint to the UN and the international community that ‘okay, this is something that they are sensitive about, they don’t like it, so let’s press ahead with it’.
Unfortunately, after those developments, one way or another we haven’t really been able to trace any major improvements, in spite of the report’s recommendations and sanctions. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be continuing to press on it; we should continue to address it.
“Overall… North Korea is at least showing some signs that they don’t like the attention and that they are actually willing to make some changes to deflect the pressure”
NK News: It seems, therefore, that pressure has led to some forms of progress. Why wasn’t South Korea spearheading this pressure decades ago?
Lee Jung-hoon: We’ve had all these tribunals on Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, South Africa; all these have been subjected to international pressure, but not North Korea. So, kudos to the regime I guess, that despite the international community’s strengthening of international law mechanisms like the special prosecutor mechanism, North Korea’s been very successful in flying under the radar for a long time.
If you really look at it, even at the UN level, the UN Human Rights Council started adopting resolutions only in 2003 and the special rapporteur was not appointed until 2004. So it was only in the 2000s that we had a concerted UN international move in this field. It is a very good question that why haven’t South Korean governments in the past been much more vocal?
We should have been at the forefront in addressing this issue but I think the issue really started coming out with the stories of victims as they started flowing out of North Korea during the Arduous March (mid-1990s to late-1990s). It wasn’t until that period that defections en masse started, finding their way mostly into South Korea, so we are talking about late 90s, early 2000s. They came and started narrating their stories of what society is like there and that is what really shocks a lot of people.
Even during World War II, we knew that something terrible was going on, but it is really after the war that people much more broadly understood the atrocities, especially with regards to the Holocaust and what had happened. So, I think that it was just the fact that there were thousands of North Korean defectors coming out and telling their stories of human rights violations and how people were starving, being killed, and being executed.
Another reason is that everyone, including South Korea, has been so focused on North Korea’s security issues and provocations until recently. If you look at the security issues, now of course it is about nuclear and missiles, but if you go back to the late 1960s, North Korea were sending commandos to kill our President and they almost got there.
They were killing American officers in Panmunjom with axes, so there is a long list of provocations and everyone’s focus had been on security and the issue of inter-Korean relations and we weren’t fully aware of the human rights conditions. Those became much more visible with the victims coming out. That is why it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that we, meaning South Korea as well as the international community, including the United Nations, started paying attention to this issue.
NK News: One of the other issues that has been raised a lot more in the last few years has been the overseas laborers. What would you say the message from South Korea has been to countries that have been working with those kinds of laborers?
Lee Jung-hoon: I’m not so sure what matters most – is it the South Korean government’s position or efforts? I think it is an issue that’s really been much more of an issue at the UN level and also at the ILO level because what happens almost amounts to slave labor.
How do you define that? Sure, you can make an argument that they are not forced, they volunteer, and sometimes there is even a selection process. But when you work and the money that you are supposed to earn for that work is taken away from you, or you get only a very small percentage of what you’ve earned for your work; that is slave labor.
A lot of research think tanks have worked on this: Asan came up with fairly elaborate research work, NKDB has also been pretty intense in terms of its research on this subject, and more and more, international organizations are looking into these issues, especially on the European front.
Of course, the majority of North Korean overseas workers are in China and Russia, I think about 20,000. But there are countries in Europe who are members of the EU like Malta and Poland, that are embarrassed that there are overseas workers – never mind from North Korea – workers in their countries working under conditions that are way below a level that is acceptable by the EU.
NK News: Yet South Korea wasn’t embarrassed about Kaesong, was it? It is proud of it. It was trying to get international investors under the Park Geun-hye regime.
Lee Jung-hoon: That is a very good question because you are right. If it’s a problem in Poland, Malta and Qatar, and other areas, then the same standard should be applied to Kaesong.
I don’t know if Kaesong will be reopened, and I don’t know the technicalities of the number of multiple sanctions regimes that are in place by the Security Council, not necessarily for human rights but for North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations.
For reasons that are very political, Kaesong was originally established hoping that this could be a harbinger of North Korea getting a taste of capitalism that could lead to improved living standards of the people working there, which is a good thing. So it was seen as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
“If it’s a problem in Poland, Malta and Qatar, and other areas, then the same standard should be applied to Kaesong”
Granted, all of those are acceptable justifications for the establishment (of Kaesong), but we still have to deal with this standards problem of the working conditions, and that applies to overseas workers in other countries, so why not Kaesong?
So if it is reopened, I think this is something that needs to be addressed, and if it is addressed in a proper way then so much the better. But it is going to be very difficult.
I’m jumping ahead here, but let’s say it is reopened and there are more companies going in, and the North Korean workers start working again and we strike a deal that they get paid directly. Who is to say that when they turn around and go home that they get to keep 100% of their money? That’s the type of regime that we are dealing with – it is very difficult.
But coming back to your earlier position; we understand that it is difficult and we are treading a very fine line but that shouldn’t prevent us from addressing righteous issues. As long as we feel very confident about saying the right things based on universal values such as human rights, I think we are okay. In the long run, I think we’ll be safer, if we do this now.
Let’s say there is unification maybe 20 years down the road or maybe sooner, I don’t think we should be accused by some of the North Korean people saying ‘when we were suffering what did you do? Why did you turn a blind eye? Why didn’t you address these issues?’
I think we should be free from that sort of accusation. We may not be able to make a difference now, but as long as we do what is right and try our best, that is really all we can do at this juncture and hope that over time, this will lead to some change of heart in North Korea.
NK News: What are your greatest fears as we move forward on this issue?
Lee Jung-hoon: My fear is, and it ties into the security issue, that North Korea is very close to having deployable nuclear weapons. And once it gets to that stage, from that point onwards, it is just a numbers game. They may have ten nuclear missiles next year, but five years down the line there could be a hundred or two hundred.
My fear is that when we get to that stage of a nuclear North Korea, if North Korea is hard to deal with today, a nuclear North Korea is going to be even more difficult to deal with. It may become untouchable. We may not be able to do anything because North Korea will say, ‘oh yeah, you want to fight?’ With its finger on the button, it says ‘make your move’. What can you do then on human rights issues?
I think the window is closing real fast – the window within which we can somehow make a difference on human rights issues, whether it is pressuring North Korea or talking to North Korea, or whatever it may be. Once North Korea becomes a genuine nuclear power and grows from there, can anyone really imagine what to do at that point? Can you say that now North Korea feels secure so it is going to improve its human rights? It is not going to happen. That is what I’m afraid of. I’m concerned about that prospect the most.
“I think the window is closing real fast – the window within which we can somehow make a difference on human rights issues”
But that doesn’t provide an answer to the question ‘what do we do if the window is closing so fast?’ That is why this is such a serious problem and we cannot simply go through this repetition of missiles fired, nuclear tests, and then condemnations, resolutions here and there, maybe a little more sanctions, until the next provocation.
We have been doing that for the past two decades and it really hasn’t worked. And all the while, human rights suffer and it is only going to get worse because they are that much closer to what they are trying to achieve. Why do you think North Korea is so bent on having nuclear weapons? They want the regime to remain intact for decades to come and they don’t want anyone to interfere with their way of life. So nuclear weapons are a very important tool to ensure that human rights violations on the domestic front, which are another tool to ensure regime survival, can continue. Pyongyang doesn’t want anyone domestically challenging the regime – no revolutions, no upheavals, no coup d’états.
How do you do that? You have to control the society, and when you have a state-controlled mechanism, that is a human rights violation. So it is a very important tool to ensure regime survival, just as is the nuclear weapons program. Therein lies the dilemma for all of us because these are two things that the regime relies on for its survival. So how do we convince it or pressure it to give it up?
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
Edited by Oliver Hotham