South Korea’s Internal Division over Humanitarian Aid to North Korea and North Korean Human Rights, by Jhe Seong-ho


[Jhe Seong-ho is Professor of Law at Chung-Ang University in Seoul; he is a former Human Rights Ambassador in the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. KOREA FOCUS is a monthly webzine and a quarterly journal published by The Korea Foundation, featuring commentaries and essays on Korean politics, economy, society and culture, as well as relevant international issues. Prof. Jhe’s essay examines the various positions held in South Korean academia, politics and society on the question of whether to provide food aid to the DPRK and if so, how and under what conditions. We highly recommend it as a useful summary of South Korean perspectives. The following is the introduction to the essay. To read the rest, please click on the link at the bottom. –CanKor.]

I. Introduction

The question of humanitarian aid to North Korea has become a major social and political issue in South Korea, pitting liberals against conservatives, and moderates against hard-liners. These groups have taken sharply different positions regarding the distribution of aid to the North, suspected diversion of aid to the North’s military and linking material assistance to other matters concerning inter-Korean relations. These conflicts derive from North Korea’s uncommon status as an entity that will eventually have to be reunified with the South and as a threat to the South’s security. If assistance was intended for a country stricken by natural disaster, there would be no such discord.

In view of the current status of South-North relations, unconditional delivery of aid to the North is certainly problematic. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that an indefinite halt is also detrimental to stable inter-Korean relations. Aid should be provided in an adequate manner but, of course, this is easier said than done.

As long as North Korea refuses to adopt reforms and economic openness, the regime cannot be expected to resolve its problems alone. Thus, determining the optimal level of humanitarian aid to North Korea remains one of the most crucial issues in Seoul`s North Korea policies.

This study examines the ongoing division in South Korean society over humanitarian aid to the North, especially large-scale food aid, and the impact of aid in improving human rights in the North. It is aimed at suggesting a desirable way to offer assistance to the impoverished communist state.

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