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[Herald Interview] Activist-turned-scholar urges action on N.K. abductees

By Yeo Jun-suk

Law professor Baik Tae-ung says the key to addressing Pyongyang’s human rights is engagement with the reclusive regime

  • Published : Jul 22, 2016 - 18:00
  • Updated : Jul 22, 2016 - 18:10
On April 29, 1992, South Korea’s top intelligence agency arrested dozens of activists for plotting to overthrow the government by building underground socialist organizations. The authorities described the groups as the biggest antistate entity ever established in the country’s modern history. 

One of those arrested was Baik Tae-ung, who served as leader of the South Korean Socialist Coalition of Workers or “Sanomaeng” in Korean. Despite the plea that he was exercising the right to political freedom, the then 29-year-old activist was sentenced to life in prison, a sentence which was later reduced to 15 years. 

Baik was designated as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and released in 1999 through a special pardon from former President Kim Dae-jung. He flew to the United States, where he earned a doctoral degree on international human rights law and passed the bar exam in the State of New York. 

Now the activist-turned-professor has returned to South Korea with a new mission – to bring home people abducted by North Korea. In 2015, his related activities won him the membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, representing Asia-Pacific states. 


Paik Tae-ung, an associate professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is also a member of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. (Chung Hee-jo/ The Korea Herald)

“The South Korean government should come forward to address this issue as it has significant meaning in the nation’s modern history. It is not just a matter of bringing an individual back home. It is about healing wounds from the past,” Baik said in an interview with The Korea Herald. 

“From the moment of kidnapping, individuals are deprived of the right to protect themselves and exposed to various types of torture. Forced disappearance is a grave violation of human rights, causing pain not just to those who have disappeared, but also to their family members.”

The professor was in Seoul in June to attend a parliamentary seminar that discussed measures to retrieve those abducted by North Korea. According to a report by the Ministry of Unification, 4,782 South Korean nationals were kidnapped during the Korean War and 516 were alive in the North as of 2013.

Some of them were reportedly subject to physical abuse while their family members faced a similar fate here after being accused of sympathizing with communism. Until now, North Korea has refused to confirm the whereabouts of the abductees and dismissed the South Korean government’s reclamation of them.

The U.N. human rights expert said that his agency’s role is to act as a bridge between the families of the abductees and their government, especially when the latter fails to respond to the disappearance reports.

“The organization fosters communication between the victims and their state by constantly monitoring the case until final closure,” he said.
What the international organization does is not so much about finding individual people, but about coming up with a comprehensive strategy, he also explained.

“We work as a sort of independent expert and offer our own professional insight. Actually, my job is not limited to North Korean issues but involves 86 states worldwide.”

The key function of Baik’s agency is to gather disappearance cases, connect victims to their respective government, file related reports, help the government carry out investigations and follow up on cases on a periodic basis.

Underlining the role that the U.N. organization has played in dealing with forced disappearance across the world, Paik referred to a case of 65,000 people reported missing in Sri Lanka during its 26-year civil war.

The agency got the Sri Lankan government to sign the U.N. Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, under which the states must enact specific laws to prevent such disappearances, investigate reports of related cases and bring those responsible to justice.

Observers are largely skeptic that such progress may happen in North Korea. The reclusive state has been refusing to discuss the disappearances issue since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Right reported back in 2014 that the regime was responsible for the disappearances of more than 200,000 people.

Paik, however, suggested that there are possibilities that the North may open up further toward international organizations, indicating some changes that it made home and abroad amid international pressure on its human right condition.

“North Korea, which used to show zero reaction to our requests, is now addressing the given accusations in international platforms. Although it is still refusing to reveal the whereabouts and identification of the abductees, I believe that the scope of engagement has changed,” he said

“I think North Korea is and has been making changes. Whether the changes are active or passive ones, they can no longer ignore the pressure from the international community. What we should do is to steer such changes in the right direction,” he said.

The changes he mentioned were North Korea’s 2009 decision to put the word “human right” in its Constitution and its 2014 amendment in criminal law to grant the accused more opportunity to appeal the ruling. The scholar said the regime would transform itself as its neighbor China and Russia had done.

To encourage more changes in the reclusive regime, Paik asserted that the hawkish approaches taken by the current Park Geun-hye administration and its conservative predecessor toward the North needs to be reevaluated. 

Conservative political camps have often been cited as North Korea’s human rights problem as part of their attack against Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations. Progressive parties, in contrast, tend to be reluctant to raise the given issue, in fear of harming the tense inter-Korean relations.

As a solution to avoid such partisan divide, Paik suggested that the South Korean government take a two-track approach -- responding sternly to military threats while engaging in further efforts to improve human rights. 

“It is precarious to cross out all talks because of the nuclear issue. Given that the nuclear negotiation is expected to be arduous one, we need to take substantive measures to address the human rights agenda. If necessary, we need to engage or cooperate with them,” he said. 

“North Korea’s human rights issue was sometimes treated as something that can be traded off for political goals, which is an anachronistic view tracing back to the Cold War frame. Human rights is universal agenda that goes beyond the politics,” he said.

His criticism also extends to the U.S., including its recent decision to slap sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and 10 other regime officials for their alleged complicity in human rights abuse against its own people.

It is the first time Washington blacklisted the young leader personally. State Department spokesperson John Kirby said the report represents “the most comprehensive U.S. government effort to date” to name those linked with the communist state’s oppression of its people.

Baik, however, played down the consequent impact of the sanction, asserting that it lacked “comprehensive vision” to address the human rights issue and was mostly driven by domestic pressure to take an assertive stance in Asia-Pacific against China. 

“I don’t think that the U.S. has a clear blueprint about how to improve the North’s human rights condition,” he said, noting that the sanction on the leader Kim is more of a security measure to curb nuclear development rather than a human rights approach.

The professor said that the government should “not make too much of the decision” because it reflects the U.S. domestic politics. Both Democrats and Republicans try to use Pyongyang to mount pressure on Beijing amid its security challenge in the region, he said.

Back when South Korea was under authoritarian rule, democratic campaigners largely refrained from publicly denouncing North Korea, in fear of backlash against the government’s frequent use of anticommunist sentiments to justify their crackdown on activists.

Paik was a unique figure in the left-leaning group. In an article by him published in 1992, titled “Our Stance toward Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and its Workers Party,” he said that the DPRK’s personality cult and massive propaganda would eventually undermine the system.

Describing the past reluctance to criticize the North as a form of protest against the authoritarian governments, the scholar hopes that liberal-minded citizens will take a more assertive tone against North Korea’s dismal human rights problems.

“With the authoritarian era way back in the past, there is no reason we can’t speak out against human rights violations happening in South Korea. Its liberal society should playing a more important role in alleviating the pain of North Korea’s residents,” he said.

Since Paik went to the United States after being released by presidential pardon in 1999, he has since spent most of his time overseas pursing his academic goals and trying to avoid the public spotlight. 

Now the 53-year-old scholar pledged to play a bridging role between his native country and the international body to which he currently belongs, promising that he would share his insight more frequently to improve the peninsula’s political and social disposition.

“Sometimes it is a shame that I can’t be physically with those people spending everyday working so hard. Though I am working at an American law school and the U.N., I hoping my work there would help Korea improve. I will come to Korea more often and share my thoughts more freely.” Paik said. 

“I feel proud for what I have done to make Korea a better place, for being part of the nation’s democratic progress. Ultimately, social progress comes down to whether the people voice their concern against social injustices. That is what leads us to a better future.“

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)