Human rights in North Korea: Should they be considered “purpose” or “means”? Catholic Institute of Northeast Asia Peace (CINAP) hosted a seminar on “Korean Peninsula: Human Rights and Peace” May 21, 2021,Kang, Jae-sun (email@example.com), Catholic Press(the original article) On May 20, the “Catholic Northeast Asia Peace Research Institute (CINAP),” of the Uijeongbu Diocese held an online seminar based on the theme “Korean Peninsula: Human Rights and Peace”. The seminar served as a means to examine issues and solutions concerning the approaches to North Korean human-rights issues in South Korea and the international community while exploring avenues through which to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula. Bishop Lee Ki-heon of the Uijeongbu Diocese, in his congratulatory speech at the seminar, said, “This seminar gives us an opportunity to think about North Korean human rights, which have become an issue especially in U.S. society.” He also expressed hope that “during the ROK-US summit, two devout Catholics (President Moon Jae-in and President Joe Biden) would have an opportunity to talk about the issues of human rights in North Korea, which is a potential agenda item of the summit, and understand each other through good dialogue.” Bishop Lee Ki-heon added, “It is heartbreaking to see that South Korean society has been severely divided over the North Korean human-rights issues related to the distribution of anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets.” And he went on to share, "Indeed, I hope that many people can come to understand whether [the leaflets] are reaching North Korean citizens, whether they are helpful, and what contents are included." We should recognize the universality of human rights, but we need to make gradual progress Dr. Paik Jang-hyun, a CINAP research fellow, who gave a presentation on the topic of understanding with regard to North Korean human rights in the international community and South Korean society, compared the U.S. approach, which emphasizes the right to freedom, such as the freedoms of religion and expression, to the European approach, which takes a holistic stance on overall human-rights issues. Dr. Paik stressed that we should acknowledge the universality of human rights in North Korea, but the concept of human rights should be adopted in North Korea gradually, in multiple stages, just as it took Western societies hundreds of years to accept the need for human rights. Dr. Paik said, “Universality does not have an exclusive relationship with each cultural distinctive characteristic. While acknowledging universality, the unique characteristics of a country should be taken into account only in the process of application.” He pointed out, “Human rights are based on the history of blood. Looking at the history of human rights, which have been gained little by little through the resistance of people who have not enjoyed human rights, it is not at all reasonable or practical to demand that only North Korea should accept everything at once.”Dr. Paik emphasized, “When it comes to food shortages, the right to live should be given priority and support. Talking about the right to freedom here is absurd. For the nuclear issue, we should focus on the right to peace and the nuclear issue. We need this type of step-by-step approach.” Dr. Park Moon-su, the second speaker, pointed out that the existing discourse on human rights in North Korea has been confined to the hegemony of certain factions. Therefore, he said, it has not been able to take the approach of recognizing the merits and demerits of progressive and conservative groups. Additionally, while examining human rights in North Korea from the perspective of Catholic social doctrine, he emphasized that human rights and peace are “core components” that make up mutual identities beyond mutual relations. Dr. Park said that the conservative group prioritizes the improvement of some human rights, such as democratization of the North Korean system, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, while the progressive group puts top priority on the right to live of North Koreans by providing humanitarian aid. He added that “Looking at the arguments of both groups, each of them points out what the other side is missing or emphasizing less.” He suggested that by taking advantage of both, “the church can find a way to harmonize the process of building peace and improving human rights in a hostile division system, building a virtuous cycle.” Accordingly, Dr. Park stressed that South Korea should first look at North Korea, like any other country, as a rational entity, that can make decisions based on its interests, and as a neighbor on the Korean Peninsula. “It is less wasteful to see North Korea as a reasonable partner for conversation rather than as a stranger. It is even better to accept North Korea as a compatriot and pursue long-term, gradual change.” Dr. Park said, “The party demanding human rights must respect human rights in the manner and process of obtaining those human rights.” Regarding the position of the conservatives of the U.S. and South Korea who use only some basic rights among the numerous elements of human rights such as the freedoms of religion and expression with the aim of disintegrating the North Korean regime, Dr. Park stressed, “The right to freedom cannot be prioritized over the right to society, the right to develop, and the right to peace. The goal should be to respect and promote all types of human rights.” A diplomatic foundation for local investigation in North Korea should be established ⒸKang, Jae-sun/catholicpress During the panel discussion, the majority of the participants shared the opinion that, in order to resolve the issue of human rights in North Korea and achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula, it is necessary for South Korea, along with the international community, to provide humanitarian aid such as food aid as opposed to engaging in hostile activities such as sending anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets, and to establish a foundation to carry out local investigations so as to accurately identify the current status of North Korea. Rev. Jung Ji-seok, of the Borderline Peace School operating under the Protestant Presbyterian Church, attended the panel discussion and criticized the attitude of the Protestants who abused human rights as a means to topple the North Korean regime. Having begun his remarks by saying “It is very disgraceful,” Rev. Jung said, “It has been 70 years since the Protestant church argued the same thing as some conservative political circles trying to bring down the North Korean regime.” pointing out that “People who talk about the (U.S.) North Korean Human Rights Act and the North Korean Human Rights Movement in South Korea are very far-right and conservative, and they say that North Korea is not a partner to talk to, but a place to be destroyed unconditionally.” In particular, he said, “North Korea itself, having gone through 70s and 80s, became an international underdog in the 90s.” He also suggested we should look at the North Korean human-rights issue with the “view that we cannot embrace North Korea, but at least we cannot attack the North either.” Mr. Kim Duck-jin, a permanent activist of the Catholic Human Rights Committee, pointed out the inaccuracies of North Korea-related information and emphasized that South Korea and the international community should focus on diplomatic activities to enable local investigations in North Korea in addressing the human rights or economic issues in North Korea. Mr. Kim cited the report of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) on the death penalty system in North Korea as an example of the lack of information on human rights in North Korea. Throughout the report it argues that the death penalty in North Korea is being abused indiscriminately, not consistent with the criminal justice system, but concluded that “it is impossible to confirm due to the closeness of North Korea and lack of information.” In fact, it was an impatient approach regarding the unverified claims of few North Korean defectors as facts. In particular, Mr. Kim stressed that it is very important for North Korea to enter the international arena through South Korea, and that North Korea is well aware of this point. He highlighted that North Korea fiercely protested when the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released an investigation report on the situation of human rights in Korea in 2014, and published its own report on human rights and held a briefing session in New York. He also added that North Korea even invited the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities for the first time. Activist Kim said that the local investigations and understanding of reality in North Korea through these series of events are “the ways that human rights movements and related research groups can pursue.” He added, “North Korea has also submitted the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which must be submitted every five years by U.N. member states, since 2009, and we should critically accept its reports.” Further, he said, “The act of submitting the report itself is encouraging, and North Korea wants to show that it is also participating in human-rights activities in the international community.”Particularly, he cited the fact that North Korea has not withdrawn from the United Nations in the past 20 years despite such criticism from the international community. “Instead of making North Korea isolate and put up barriers, it is necessary to change the direction from disclosure and criticism to dialogue and cooperation.” He also stressed that we should create an environment in which to objectively review the situation in North Korea along with the process by North Korea emphasizes that it is a “normal state.” Instead of inducing systemic change based on individual human rights, the right to live should come firstAttorney Jeon Su-mi, the representative of Reconciliation and Peace Solidarity, once worked in a North Korean human-rights organization and took part in sending anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets to the North. Based on her experience, she is well aware of how useless and dangerous it was. Ms. Jeon referred to North Koreans who migrated to South by using the term “Buk-hyang-min (person whose hometown is in the North)” instead of “people who fled from North Korea” or “North Korean defectors.”Ms. Jeon emphasized the effectiveness of humanitarian aid: “If we really want to help North Koreans, we need to provide humanitarian assistance [instead of propaganda leaflets]. If rice is KRW 1,000 per kilogram in the (North Korea) Jangmadang, the price of rice drops to KRW 300 when South Korea provides rice. It has a great influence on the market price.” “Instead of viewing issues affecting real market prices with a political frame, we should consider North Koreans’ right to live.”Regarding the criticism of human rights in North Korea by members of the international community such as the U.S. and Japan, she asked a question: “Without mutual trust (between North Korea and the international community), if the international community criticizes the North by saying it has human-rights issues, then would North Korea think ‘We need to fix them right away’ or ‘They are trying to bring us down’?” Ms. Jeon added that mutual trust should be established first before such criticism can be effective. Ms. Jeon said, “I heard a lot of testimony that people who had seen the propaganda leaflets actually didn’t like them.” She also said that she had recently testified before the U.S. Congress about the anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets. Recalling the memory, she said, “The opinions of the residents in the bordering region were not included. They asked me questions based on the assumption that President Moon is a horrible president: ‘Did the Moon administration stop providing support to those coming from North Korea? Aren’t they persecuting human rights activities? Are there any other cases that infringe on the freedom of expression?’” Facing such questions made her feel “sorry that Korean diplomacy has a long way to go.”Mr. Jeon concluded by saying, “There is a problem with the propaganda leaflets, but most of those coming from North Korea have a hard time settling. A lot of them belong to vulnerable groups. In the end, some people use the propaganda leaflets as a means of living. If you are asked not to do it, you will lose your means of making a living, so they send the leaflets more aggressively. It is absolutely necessary to find out how to provide support for the vulnerable.”At the conclusion of the seminar, Father Kang Ju-seok, the director of CINAP and the general secretary of Catholic Church’s National Reconciliation Committee, said the Institute will continue to hold seminars on human rights in North Korea and provide an opportunity to hear the views of the U.S. and Europe at the international conference to be held in early November. Approximately 30 attendees participated in the discussion session organized by the Catholic Institute of Northeast Asia Peace, which was broadcast live online via YouTube for the general public.