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[Editorial] US signal on NK

Biden‘s first sanction on N. Korea implies Seoul should pay attention to human rights

The US blacklisted on Monday North Korea’s new Defense Minister Ri Yong-gil, a former head of the Ministry of Social Security which is in charge of the prison system, and the Central Public Prosecutors Office on the grounds of forced labor and human rights violation.

The sanction is significant in that it was one first imposed by the Joe Biden administration since it was launched in January.

The main reason for sanctions so far by the US and the international community against North Korea was its violation of UN resolutions banning nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

Though it did not target only North Korea -- it was part of extensive sanctions against officials and entities in eight countries including China and Myanmar -- it gives a signal that North Korea is no exception to the Biden administration’s foreign policy that prioritizes human rights and also that South Korea must not ignore North Korea’s rights issues.

For North Korea, the question of human rights is like dirty linen.

The administration under President Moon Jae-in seems to have persistently tried to block the weak point of the North from being exposed.

It declined to co-sponsor a UN resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights violations for three consecutive years from 2019.

The presidential office appealed against a court ruling that they disclose information to the bereaved family of a Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official shot dead by North Korean soldiers in September last year. The government announced the official went to the North voluntarily, but his family sued for information disclosure, saying the announcement is unbelievable.

Despite criticism from human rights groups, the National Assembly passed a legislation to criminalize leafleting into North Korea in a partisan vote supported overwhelmingly by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. The party pushed the legislation soon after Kim Yo-jung, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, demanded South Korea ban the activity.

The party inserted a new item for the monitoring of “fake news” on North Korea in the Ministry of Unification budget for next year. Critics of the Moon administration’s North Korea policy raise concerns that the ministry seems intent on monitoring news reports that may offend the North by mentioning its human rights situation.

The latest US sanction is seen as a warning to the South Korean administration for pushing signatories to the truce of the Korean War to declare the war over, while turning a blind eye to the question of North Korean human rights.

Diplomacy and security experts have long been critical of the push for the declaration of the end of war. They say South Korea’s obstinate drive to have the war declared over will do more harm than good.

The government has diplomatically strived to utilize the Beijing Winter Games as an occasion to declare a formal end to the war. It argues that the declaration of the end of war will give momentum to inter-Korean relations.

But there are concerns that declaring the end of war with the North’s nuclear and missile threats left intact is a risky gamble. The declaration can offer a justification for North Korea and its ally, China, to be able to demand that the US withdraw its forces from South Korea and that the UN Command be disbanded. The US alliance and South Korea’s security will likely be weakened. It is questionable whom the declaration is good for if the human rights of North Korean residents continue to be trampled over.

If South Korea pursues the declaration of the end of the war while ignoring the values of democracy and human rights, it will likely invite diplomatic isolation. The US sanction sets a clear guideline on what the South Korean government must pay attention to. If the Moon administration keeps turning a blind eye to North Korea’s human rights problem, it would be difficult to expect full support and cooperation from the Biden administration down the road over Korean Peninsula issues, including declaring the war to be over.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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