SEOUL – South Korea’s decision to support a United Nations investigation into human rights abuses by North Korea signals that Seoul’s new conservative administration is willing to pressure its neighbor on such issues — even if it hurts the chances for engagement.
South Korea’s pledge Wednesday to give “active” support to the investigation comes just two days after the inauguration of President Park Geun Hye and will likely infuriate the North, which views discussion of its human rights as a “grave violation.”
Seoul struggled with the decision, which forced a choice between two key goals: Restoring civil relations with Pyongyang, and pressing its government to improve treatment of its 24 million people.
South Korea’s commitment, announced by its deputy foreign minister for global affairs at a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, is significant because Seoul holds influence over global policymaking regarding North Korea. With the South’s support, the investigation is all but assured of passage when the resolution is put up for a vote next month among member states of the council, rights advocates said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Bong Hyun said conditions in North Korea have “continued to deteriorate,” according to a release from Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
South Korea has typically kept quiet about its neighbor’s rights abuses, to the frustration of more than 20,000 defectors who now live in the South. That changed somewhat in the last five years under just-departed President Lee Myung Bak, but he faced consequences for his harder line, with Pyongyang twice launching fatal attacks on South Korea.
On the presidential campaign trail, Park had vowed to soften policy toward the North, raising the prospect of limited economic engagement and meetings between officials from Seoul and Pyongyang. Such ties had been severed under Lee.
Because of the new president’s hopes for modest engagement, many advocates had presumed that South Korea’s government wouldn’t publicly back the so-called Commission of Inquiry (COI), and would instead signal its support in behind closed doors meetings with other member nations of the Human Rights Council, and then vote “yes.” The United States and Japan have also said they will support the probe.
The COI, if it wins majority approval from the 47 council member nations, would mark a major shift in attention paid to human rights in North Korea by the United Nations, which currently has only a single person, working on a voluntary basis, documenting the issue.
The new U.N. inquiry would establish a panel of experts who would interview witnesses, document abuses and help to formally establish whether Pyongyang is committing crimes against humanity. In January, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in a statement that such an investigation was “long overdue,” particularly because there was no sign of improvement under leader Kim Jong Un, who took over from his father, the late Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
According to a mountain of government documents, reports from human rights groups and survivor testimony, North Koreans have virtually no right to political or religious freedom. As many as 200,000 are detained in political prison camps, often for activities — such as selling daily products or criticizing the country’s leadership — that in most countries would be considered ordinary.
Seoul, rights advocates say, has particular reason for concern about how Pyongyang treats its people, as several hundred North Koreans who survived the gulags now live in South Korea.
In addition, the North has abducted thousands of foreigners, the majority of them South Koreans who were taken by Pyongyang’s agents in the decades after a 1953 armistice was signed to end the Korean War. About 86 percent of those abductees were eventually returned, leaving 517 still unaccounted for, according to the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded think tank.