SEOUL — Yes, three American hostages arrived back in the United States this morning, and President Donald Trump was at Andrews Air Force base at 2:30 a.m. to welcome them home. Trump thanked the hostage taker, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, profusely. Trump did everything short of announce “peace in our time.”
But, shhh! Don’t mention “human rights” when talking to the North Koreans. Don’t breathe the words in events involving North Koreans. And don’t even think about raising the issue in a summit with Kim Jong Un.
If there’s one thing the North Koreans don’t want to hear about, it’s their record on human rights. The topic, as far as the North Koreans are concerned, is not only taboo but a rude assault on their leadership. As the North’s party newspaper Rodong Sinmun put it a few days ago after the State Department issued its annual report on human rights, the U.S. always seeks to maintain its “hegemonic position” on the issue, “place other countries in the dock and prevent its own hideous human rights situation from being questioned.” The purpose, said the commentary, was “to justify and legitimize interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”
It’s against that background that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, a liberal with a long record as a progressive campaigner on social issues, not only ignored human rights in a day of summitry with Kim at the truce village of Panmunjom in April, but made certain that defectors eager to launch balloons laden with pamphlets full of articles on human rights were blocked by police vehicles.
And it’s also for that reason that President Donald Trump, in the run-up to what he is confident will be his own “historic” summit with Kim, seems to have dropped the topic entirely. He and Kim may be able to exchange differing ideas about how or when North Korea will get rid of its nuclear program. They may even come part way to a meeting of minds on the Americans’ oft-stated demand for CVID, “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. “
No one expects, however, that they will go near North Korea’s record on human rights.
“Right now, people are trying to make friends and move the process forward,” said Signe Poulsen, representative in Seoul for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “We are under no illusion that things are okay. These issues are extremely sensitive – difficult to raise.”
While the imprisonment of about 100,000 people in a gulag system for anyone vaguely critical of the government, and imprisonment of their relatives as well, may appear an “internal problem” for Pyongyang, South Korea also has to deal with the issue of South Koreans abducted to North Korea.
Right now South Korea’s unification ministry lists 516 people abducted and still held in North Korea, including 457 fishermen picked up when their boats strayed into or near North Korean waters. No one claims the abduction issue is none of the business of South Koreans, but, again, Moon did not mention the victims in his summit with Kim. Nor, for that matter, was the abduction issue raised in the first two inter-Korean summits, in 2000 and 2007, when Kim Dae-jung and then Roh Moo-hyun went to Pyongyang to meet Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.
“Obviously they have failed to resolve this issue,” says Kwon Young-min, managing a campaign waged by the son of a South Korean broadcaster who had the misfortune to have been on a Korean Air flight that was hijacked over South Korea in 1969 and forced to land at the North Korean east coast port city of Wonsan. Eventually 39 of the 49 passengers and crew members were freed. Eleven, including the pilot, co-pilot and two hostesses, have remained in North Korea ever since.
Hwang In-seol, the son, is 51 now, employed as a day laborer on construction sites, but he is probably the most outspoken among relatives pressuring South Korean officials to do something, anything, to persuade North Koreans to let them visit their loved ones, at least “Bring My Father Home” is the name of Hwang’s campaign on behalf of his father, Hwang Won, who had worked as a producer for South Korea’s Munwha Broadcasting Corporation and is believed to be working now for North Korea’s state broadcaster.
“After waging my campaign all these years, there’s a lot of fear in my heart,” said Hwang, who was two at the time his father, then 32, was captured, never to be seen again by anyone from South Korea. “I worry I will be the cause of his suffering” – that North Korean authorities will imprison his father simply because of his son’s activities.
Hwang persists, “motivated by the hope to see my father again before he passes away,” but he acknowledges he’s getting nowhere while pursuing officials who either refuse to talk to him or put him off with polite but useless responses. “The government does not have concern for what we might say,” he said. “They only listen to what they want to hear.”
In fact, the unification ministry has an office responsible for tracking down as much information it can, but is helpless to combat North Korean claims that all those held there have chosen to stay “voluntarily.” Nor can the ministry do anything when the North Koreans respond, as they did in Hwang’s case, that they have no record of a person’s name.
Signe Poulsen at the U.N Human Rights office, set up here three years ago after a U.N. commission of inquiry issued a devastating report on North Korean human rights issues, took heart in the release of the three U.S. citizens, all Korean-Americans, flown back to Washington on Wednesday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had just had his second conversation with Kim.
“We saw their detention as a human rights issue,” she said. Similarly, she views the prospect of a reunion of North and South Korean families set for August 15, the holiday marking the Japanese surrender in 1945 and freedom of both Koreas from Japanese rule, as another victory for human rights. Kim agreed on the reunion, the first since 2015, at his summit with Moon.
Those events, while widely publicized, barely touch the issue of human rights in North Korea. “How do you start to address them?” Poulsen asked rhetorically, citing problems ranging from lack of food, basic hygiene and medicine in ordinary prisons, to routine torture techniques, to “the broader issue of freedom of expression.”
She did, however, cite one change: “It seems public executions have decreased significantly,” she said. “People talk about witnessing these things in the past, but not in recent years.”
Instead, she said, “We hear of people who disappear, and their relatives don’t know about them.”