The Korea Herald


[Andrew Wolman] Human rights under Moon Jae-in: five issues to watch

By Korea Herald

Published : June 4, 2017 - 17:44

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Korea’s most famous human rights lawyer is now its president. This bodes well for the status of human rights in the country. Korea’s reputation for respecting its people’s rights suffered during the last 10 years of conservative rule and Moon Jae-in has entered office with an extraordinarily strong reform mandate.

But he will face challenges and tough decisions and will be evaluated on his ability to promote rights even in the face of political obstacles from both conservatives and his progressive supporters. Five important issues are particularly worth watching.

The first is North Korean human rights. For many years, Korean progressives were reluctant to condemn the Kim Jong-un regime’s atrocities, let alone impose sanctions, in the interests of maintaining relations between the two countries in preparation for peaceful unification. While it is no longer tenable to remain silent on such matters, Moon will quickly be faced with a number of difficult questions related to North Korean human rights.

One is whether a reopened Kaesong Industrial Park will respect the rights of North Korean workers. If it doesn’t, Korea will have an awfully hard time convincing China, Russia and other countries that host North Korean laborers to reform the harsh practices in those countries that human rights activists have criticized so much in recent years.

Another question is whether any future Korean humanitarian aid will be provided consistently with international standards of transparency and preferentially for vulnerable social groups, as required by the North Korea Human Rights Act. Given that North Korea is unlikely to allow this, Moon will be faced with a dilemma of whether to give up on humanitarian aid or give up on transparency and support for the most vulnerable.

Freedom of expression is another issue of particular importance in Korea. One tricky issue for Moon to deal with will be the use of criminal defamation laws by politicians to quash political criticism. While this is a technique more commonly used by conservative administrations, progressives are not immune from the temptation to silence legitimate critics either.

During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Moon himself used the law to accuse the reporter Yoon Gil-joo of defamation; Yoon was eventually found innocent by the Supreme Court. Human rights groups have urged the repeal of criminal defamation laws, however, and there will be pressure for Moon to enact reform.

Another difficult issue will be the question of what to do about the National Security Act, an anachronistic law that -- in part -- prohibits praising North Korea or propagating pro-North Korean ideas. Roh tried to repeal the law in 2004 but failed due to conservative opposition. It remains to be seen whether Moon will try again and whether he will have more success if he does.

A third issue that Moon will unavoidably face is LGBT rights. It is becoming ever more evident that Korea is behind the times on the issue of LGBT equality. Just in the past week, the media juxtaposed a Taiwanese Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage with news of a Korean soldier being convicted for engaging in consensual homosexual activity.

Moon’s position on the issue is unclear. When asked about LGBT rights in the final televised candidate debate, he asserted that he opposes homosexuality, a shocking answer for a human rights lawyer. Since then, he has clarified that he nevertheless opposes discrimination based on sexual orientation. Even if Moon does find the courage to fight for LGBT rights, he will not lack opposition.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon -- another human rights lawyer -- found that out the hard way when he saw his proposed Seoul Citizens’ Human Rights Charter flounder due to anti-gay protests. Park took the easy way out and withdrew the entire charter. One hopes Moon will be stronger in fighting for equal rights for all.

The fourth issue that Moon will be judged on is his respect for the rights of asylum seekers -- both the right to refugee status and the right to some degree of security and stability in their lives in Korea. So far, Korean progressive politicians have little to be proud of on this issue. From 2003-2007 (roughly coinciding with Roh’s 5-year term in office), the country only gave 104 asylum seekers refugee status or humanitarian protection. During Park Geun-hye’s administration, the country protected significantly more asylum seekers (albeit most with humanitarian protection status rather than formal refugee status), passed a new Refugee Act and started a pilot refugee resettlement program. Moon should strengthen Korea’s incipient refugee policy by reforming an overly strict refugee determination culture, increasing the number of resettled refugees and making it easier for humanitarian protection recipients to work legally.

A final issue facing Moon will be to what extent he will devote political and economic resources toward addressing rights abuses from the dictatorship era by establishing new truth commissions. To do so would satisfy his base and would needle conservative politicians who are the political descendants of Korea’s authoritarian rulers. However, it would be unlikely to further a process of reconciliation.

Korea has already established over a dozen truth commissions and spent billions of won to look at the authoritarian and Japanese imperial eras, and the basic facts are well known. At this point, renewed attention to historic rights abuses would only serve to divide and to distract from Korea’s current problems.

To be clear, Moon faces many other important human rights issues and new ones will inevitably arise over the course of his term. But these five are a good place to start. For each one, proper action from a human rights perspective will take political skill and courage. Only time will tell if these are qualities that Moon possesses.

By Andrew Wolman

Andrew Wolman is a professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. -- Ed.