Historically, progressives in the ROK have taken a vow of silence when it comes to North Korean human rights (“NKHR”).
For anyone involved in the issue, this has been a sore point even before the days of the Sunshine policy. Conservatives love to bring this up (at times for their own reasons) and progressives do not (again, at times for their own reasons). What are these reasons, you ask?
To answer this, we should go to a fundamental premise behind human rights: they are inherently political. The issue of NKHR is of no exception. Unfortunately, this issue has been yanked artificially away from the realm of “simply political;” rather what we have seen with the issue is a hyper-politicization that has created a schism between the left and the right. This divide quickly came to the point that some progressives in the past had remained peculiarly silent on NKHR.
There are reasons, both justified and not, for this type of behaviour. Historically, the military regimes that governed the ROK for a substantial part of its modern history were conservative in nature. As such, progressives of all ilk were identified not only as enemies of the state, but in “a lesser Satan, greater Satan, but still Satan” kind of way, were also identified as agents of Pyongyang. The term “bbal-gaengi” (or “Red”) was used to describe anyone who had a beef with the state and is still commonly used by conservatives as a perjorative term for anyone remotely centre-left and beyond.
Vice versa, some progressives (not many, but some) in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of way took solace in Pyongyang. Some admired the fact that North Korea, at least in the 1970’s, was doing better than the ROK. Others, seeing the DPRK constantly give the finger to the Americans (who were supporting the military dictatorship), found a hero in Kim Il Sung. Others simply did not find anywhere else to turn to.
When you start off at such far ends of the spectrum, it’s hard to come to anything but conflict.
This divide continued even when the military regime finally relinquished power. With the black and white nature of the democratization process still afresh, the issue of how to deal with North Korea quickly again became a dividing point between progressives and conservatives. The “if you’re not for us you’re against us” paradigm continued on both sides of the fence. You were either for engaging North Korea (the so-called “Sunshine Policy”) or against doing so. There was no in between. For the most part, the progressives who fought so valiantly for democracy and human rights, once they themselves came into power, found talking about the very same in North Korea a nuisance to the ultimate policy goal of opening up the country. Any talk of human rights and the refugees that came streaming in during the mid-1990’s was quashed in the name of engagement. Some South Korean diplomats that I’ve talked to off the record were ashamed at the lengths that they were silenced by progressive governments when it came to speaking about NKHR and refugees.
On the other hand, conservatives, once they found themselves in the woods of the opposition, rightly criticized this hypocrisy by the then leaders of the ROK who had been prominent pro-democracy activists. But by taking a step forward, one has to wonder whether they actually took two steps back: by drawing the overall picture in such a Manichean struggle, it was impossible to offer any constructive criticism of their sledgehammer tactics without being labeled with such terms as “bbal-gaengi” or even worse: “cowards.”
For the most part, this impasse has continued until very recently. Yes, very recently. One has to wonder whether some progressives were beginning to think enough was enough, with progressive darling Ahn Cheol Soo’s visit to the recent North Korean refugee protests in Seoul perhaps being a sign of this. This conclusion is not supported by the evidence: there was no progressive rush to acknowledge NKHR at this time. Rather, it seems that the more salient reason that progressives have begun to embrace NKHR starts with last year’s parliamentary elections in the ROK and the shenanigans of the United Progressive Party (“UPP”).
The UPP since the last parliamentary election has slowly but surely self-destructed. One politician affiliated to the party I recently talked to stated flatly that “these are dark days to be a progressive in Korea.” The crisis itself began with allegations that the UPP’s slate of proportional representation candidates had been rigged in favour of some candidates over others – the main target being Representative Lee Seok-Ki. Although the ensuing accusations of disloyalty remain to be proven more thoroughly, the proverbial word on the street has principally fingered what has been described as the “pro-North Korean” faction in the party – more specifically, the “jusapa” faction within the National Liberation group. Coincidentally (*gasp*), Lee Seok-Ki has been fingered by his opponents to be part of this faction – and whispered to be the de-factor leader (*cue ominous music*). As these accusations transformed the UPP conflict into national high drama, lines were quickly drawn between those who were accused of being pro-North Korean (eg. Mr. Lee), and those who were not (eg. Shim Sang Jung).
Canada is no stranger to the concept of a disloyal opposition (think the Bloc Quebecois), but not even the Bloc faced such embarrassment as it was recently swept away from federal politics. One has to wonder the competence and political awareness of those, who in face of the worst crisis the Korean left has faced in the past twenty years, have literally plunged into the deep end.
First, you had the Lim Soo Kyung incident. Lim, a.k.a. the “Flower of Unification” and a proportional representative from the centre-left DUP, has had a bit of a history when it comes to the DPRK. In a lesson to all politicians not to argue with anyone after imbibing too much soju, Lim went on a drunken tirade using such colourful language such as “son of a bitch,” ”bastard betrayer,” and “kill with my own hand” in the context of North Korean refugees and their supporters.
Then you have Lee Seok Ki (yes, the same guy) proposing that getting rid of Korea’s present national anthem would be a grand idea. The reason? Because it was a vestige of the old military dictatorship. His reward for not adhering to the advice of his PR team (ie. “keeping a low profile”) was being attacked, by all people, farmers protesting the recent KORUS FTA, which also comes to mind another old political adage, “politics makes strange bedfellows.”
Apparently Lee did not witness the millions of South Koreans who joyfully sang the national anthem in 2002 while their football team careened into the World Cup semifinals.
With these supposedly pro-North Korean politicians very publicly shooting themselves in the foot over and over again, the UPP party has had but no choice but to distance itself from its past and embrace NKHR publicly. If this holds, the implications of this change are of the game-changing variety. If anyone has been watching, I would be interested to know whether the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have ever so slightly turned in position.
The next question to ask would be whether this is a genuine philosophical change, or whether it’s simply tactical. After all, with apologies to Clausewitz, politics is war by other means. But the fact that the UPP has successfully brought human rights back on the progressive table is undeniable. And whether it’s a tactical move or a defining strategic change, for someone involved in the NKHR movement, it has to be applauded. Applause, whether drenched in irony or not (*cough cough* Ms. Lim and Mr. Lee), is still applause.
Unfortunately, if the conservative reaction to all this is any indicator, what these recent developments will not do is defuse the hyperpoliticization of the NKHR issue. But I’m optimistic. After all, the issue of whether North Korea has a massive human rights problem is no longer on the table. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the enormous, but not insurmountable, question remaining is what we have to do about it.