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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
It’s been over six months since the position of ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights was vacated in South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), a source at the ministry confirmed to NK News on Tuesday.
Lee Jung-hoon, whose part-time role had been 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.
“His appointment ended last September, and we don’t have a replacement yet, but we are in the process of gathering candidates together,” an informed MOFA source told NK News on Tuesday.
It’s not clear why Lee left his post last September: while being appointed during the Park Geun-hye administration, he nonetheless continued to serve the Moon administration for around four months before departing.
But MOFA’s slow-motion approach to finding a replacement – an issue which seems to have been overlooked by local media – comes amid concerns in some quarters that the new Moon administration isn’t prioritizing North Korean human rights issues.
“Given his government’s censorship of criticism of North Korea leading up to the North-South summit, (Moon) may be leaving the position vacant to avoid offending Pyongyang,” said Joshua Stanton, a human rights advocate and author of the One Free Korea blog.
“It may also be that none of the far-left characters in Moon’s circle of trust have ever paid much attention to the issue, and thus acquired any apparent qualifications for the job.”
Hubert Y. Lee, Executive Director of the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group, said that the lack of urgency in finding a replacement suggested the Moon administration is intentionally working “to avoid public and media attention on North Korean human rights issues.”
“I anticipate the new appointment wouldn’t be made anytime soon as we witnessed even civil society demands for human rights dialogue … repeatedly rejected,” he said.
However, NK News understands that MOFA has not appointed several other key ambassador roles and is currently working to create a new ambassador system, the reason – one informed source said – delays are prevailing.
HUMAN RIGHTS SENSITIVITY
North Korea typically bristles when human rights are raised, having most recently described South Korean support for a DPRK-focused UN human rights resolution on April 3 as “open political provocation … an intolerable act of chilling the atmosphere for dialogue.”
A day later South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha said while Seoul maintains a “firm” stance on the North Korean human rights issues, it needed “more preparation” before including it on the agenda of forthcoming inter-Korean meetings.
But if countries avoid raising human rights simultaneous to securing ongoing diplomacy, “it signals that human rights are not actually that important to the international community,” said Sokeel Park, Director of Research & Strategy at the Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) not-for-profit.
Describing the failure to find a replacement for Ambassador Lee as a “missed opportunity,” Park said “the only way to resolve the nuclear and security situation is if the country changes fundamentally and normalizes internationally.”
“With that framework, it means that if we just work on nuclear issues, the (same) problems will keep coming round-and-round.”
“There’s therefore a need to work in parallel to take a more holistic approach to implement further change and improve the North Korean government’s relationship with North Korean people,” he said.
South Korea is not, however, the only concerned party lacking a human rights ambassador at this time.
“President Trump hasn’t appointed a Special Envoy for human rights in North Korea, either, and Bob Corker, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently allowed the North Korean Human Rights Act to lapse,” Stanton pointed out.
“It seems that the lives of the North Korean people are almost equally inconvenient to everyone,” he continued. “Don’t expect them to forget that soon.”
Notably, former Ambassador Lee told NK News in an interview last May that his greatest fear was that when North Korea completes developing nuclear weapons, “it may become untouchable.”
“It is not going to happen,” he said, when asked whether North Korea would improve its human rights once it felt its security was guaranteed. “That is what I’m afraid of. I’m concerned about that prospect the most.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham