Human rights don't appear to be high on the agenda for South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: AFP/Inter-Korean Summit/Anandolu Agency

US President Joe Biden is putting human rights front and center in his administration’s foreign policy.

His first foreign policy speech delivered at the US State Department declared: “… we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

The entire speech stressed American support for human rights and the decent treatment of all human beings. Of course, stating such principles and actually living up to them is the hard part.

America’s allies and partners never see eye-to-eye on everything. That’s normal. And some level of inconsistency is a permanent part of every nation’s foreign affairs. But even so, South Korea presents the Biden administration with a particular conundrum on the human rights front.

How’s that? 

Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime has been tormenting its citizens for decades. This is well documented in reports from the United Nations and other international organizations. There is also eyewitness testimony of escapees from North Korea.

Just spend an hour reading the reports to get a sense of the god-awful brutality.

Yet, it appears that South Korea’s leftist president, Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer no less, doesn’t really care much about the human rights of Koreans who live in the North.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds his New Year press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on January 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je
President Moon Jae-in has said little about the atrocities committed north of the border. Photo: AFP

Silent on the issue

South Korea has been notably silent on the issue and has declined to sign United Nations declarations in recent years condemning Pyongyang’s atrocities against its own citizens.

The Moon administration is even cracking down on South Korean citizens and residents – many of them escapees from the North – who are trying to send food, money and outside news into North Korea. 

Seoul recently passed the so-called “anti-leaflet law” that criminalizes the launch of balloons or sending by other means such aid into North Korea. Pyongyang had earlier demanded the South cease such “subversive activities” – and Moon Jae-in was perhaps just complying.

The Moon administration’s nominal excuse was the balloons might “land short” in South Korea and hit somebody or cause environmental harm by littering. Excuses worthy of a Japanese bureaucrat, no less. 

One might, of course, excuse Seoul’s actions as just one approach to resolving a difficult foreign policy problem – the security threats posed by the North Korean regime.

It’s not completely new. Over the last two decades, governing South Korean leftist administrations have periodically tried to appease Pyongyang. The so-called “Sunshine Policy sought to resolve differences between the two Korea’s by giving the Kim regimes presents and money.

In other words, all carrots and no sticks.

Former leftist South Korean President Kim Dae-jung even won a Nobel Prize for his efforts – though it was later revealed that the few hundred million dollars paid to the Kim family were a factor in getting the Kims to play along for a while. 

As brutal as ever

But this soft approach has not produced a kinder, gentler North Korean regime. Indeed, it is as brutal as ever, but now has more advanced nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.

At some point, one concludes that this isn’t just naiveté on the part of Moon and South Korean leftists. Rather, they just might have an affinity for the North Korean system.

Far-fetched? Consider the track records and statements of Moon and many top officials – starting from way back in their student activist days. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in raise their hands in unity after signing agreements during the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. Photo: Reuters TV frame grab

Moon expressed his “euphoria” on hearing the Americans were defeated in South Vietnam. And consider Lee In-young, the Unification Minister appointed in July 2020. Read the transcript of his confirmation hearing in the National Assembly. 

Lee is biting his tongue but doesn’t seem to have changed much since his days as the #2 person in the Anti-American Youth Association. This was the underground organization providing leadership to Jeondaehyup, the violent, radical 1980s student organization based upon North Korea’s Juche ideology. 

Tara O of East Asia Research continues to do excellent work on this topic and is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the backgrounds, ideologies and political objectives of Moon Jae-in and South Korea’s leftists. The information is there in plain sight.

And recently, President Moon’s top advisor, Moon Chung-in (no relation to President Moon) had some advice for the Biden administration. He said the United States should focus on the North Korean nuclear issue – and not North Korean human rights. Indeed, Moon appears to suggest paying no attention at all to North Korean suffering.

Let’s put this in context by going back a few decades. 

Apartheid system

Suppose a top advisor to President George HW Bush or President Ronald Reagan had publicly called for ignoring the South African government’s brutal apartheid system that oppressed black Africans and other non-whites. And instead, suppose the adviser recommended the US administration focus only on the apartheid regime’s nuclear weapons development program.

There would have been immediate hell to pay, starting with denunciations from the media, academia, NGO’s, the political opposition and much of the public. And the reaction would have been worldwide.

Yet, Moon Chung-in is advising the Americans to do something similar by ignoring the North Korean prison camps, the torture, the rapes and the absence of human freedoms of any sort. And keep in mind that apartheid-era South Africa was nowhere near as bad as today’s North Korea.

South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed wire fenced area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, in this file photo. Photo: AFP

It appears Moon Jae-in is fine with all this. And the foreign media covering South Korea doesn’t seem to care much either.

But maybe the military and the nuclear threat from North Korea is so serious that President Moon and South Korean leftists – and American apologists – have no other choice? And they must turn a blind eye to human rights in North Korea and appease the Kim family regime.

After all, Seoul is only 30 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and well within North Korean artillery and rocket range.

No. There is always a choice.

Not a waste of time

In South Africa’s case, the front-line states, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania, all fiercely and vocally opposed the racist South African apartheid regime.

They even hosted black nationalist guerrillas that infiltrated South Africa. In response, the South Africans launched military raids and backed local insurgents. And Pretoria also applied serious economic pressure on the front-line states.

In 1980 it seemed like the frontline states were wasting their time. The white South African regime was so powerful militarily and economically that it would survive for decades. Hardly. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and four years later he was president of South Africa.

The apartheid regime was gone. All thought impossible – or at least not without massive bloodshed.

The Biden administration now has its work cut out for it with the Moon administration. It’s hard to have a solid alliance when one party willingly ignores mass torture – and the other party has sworn not to.

Anthony Blinken spoke out when he was in South Korea. Photo: AFP

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken did well to state on arrival in South Korea the other day: “The authoritarian regime in North Korea continues to commit systemic and widespread abuses against its own people … We must stand for fundamental rights and freedoms and against those who oppress it.”

That’s a good sign. But squaring this circle with the Moon administration will not be easy, and its efforts to suppress its domestic opponents add to the difficulty. However, sometimes the best alliances are based on principle.

And Biden’s people should not compromise. 

Let Moon Jae-in explain why Japanese colonial era atrocities in Korea were awful, but North Korea’s current, ongoing human rights atrocities are not.

If he cannot or will not, that will say plenty about what he thinks of the alliance itself.

This article originally appeared in AND Magazine and is reprinted with permission.