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Korea divided: Leaders leaning to conciliation, but human rights pose hurdle

By
Elizabeth Shim
The Arch of Reunification, (formally Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification), in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Attila JANDI/Shutterstock
The Arch of Reunification, (formally Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification), in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Attila JANDI/Shutterstock

As the leaders of a divided Korea make overtures to peacemaking, both sides appear to see economic opportunity in mending relations. But the South's determination to address human rights violations in the North, where any such abuse is categorically denied, may hinder further development. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has attracted higher approval ratings after recent speeches calling for conciliation. "We will work to put an end to the 70-year-long division, which has caused disagreements and conflicts, and induce North Korea to the path of trust and changes," she said in her New Year's Day address. In his own televised New Year's speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un not only said he welcomes resumed summit talks with the South, but also devoted a substantial portion of his remarks to North-South relations. A bill under consideration in South Korea would provide support to activist organizations working to help political prisoners in North Korea, estimated to number about 200,000 in 2011 by Amnesty International. North Korean defectors have repeatedly testified of atrocities inside tightly controlled gulags. In December, 73.1 percent of those polled by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, an independent South Korean research center, said they support the bill. Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told UPI in an interview, "I think what President Park Geun-hye has in mind are both views -- the human rights-oriented view and the engagement-oriented view. But frankly, I don't think they can coexist." The issue of North Korean human rights is seen as a highly politicized issue in South Korea between the ruling and opposition parties, he said. "North Koreans simply claim that their human rights record is absolutely pristine, that there's no problems," Scarlatoiu said. In December, North Korea blasted the UN Security Council for its discussion of the North's human rights record. It has been impossible to raise the human rights issue at past inter-Korea talks, Scarlatoiu said. North Korea has also demanded that the distribution of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by human rights activists be stopped before any dialog is resumed. The leaflets are typically sent over the fortified border by helium balloons. "We think that it is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts ... if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue," Kim said in his speech.

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North Korea's conciliatory response to Park's proposal does not include any willingness to resume the inter-Korean talks that was offered by South Korea's parliament, or National Assembly. The common interests of the two Koreas - notably economic ones - should overrule differing ideologies, he said. Kim's 29-minute speech, longer than last year's, emphasized progress he said North Korea made in science and technology sectors. He also said improvements in North Korean living standards – including the nation's "food problem" remained a priority for his leadership. Separately, Park struck a strong note on improving the world's 15th-largest economy that, while high-tech and industrialized, has experienced some of the slower growth characteristic of mature and developed economies. Park said her government would focus on creativity and innovation in preparation for an "era of $40,000 in per capita income." That, and her commitment to eventually ending Korea's 70-year-long division has raised her approval ratings to 40 percent since December, according to Gallup Korea poll results published Friday.

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Eddie Baek, a co-founder of fast-growing South Korean cosmetics firm WishCompany in Seoul, said he welcomes Park's statements on North-South conciliation.

"Unification for South Korea means political stability and more economic clout," Baek said. "It will make room for land-based trade with China and reduce the risk of war."

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Despite its developed economy, South Korea's stock markets are roiled in times of North Korean belligerence. Baek said young South Koreans like himself anticipate new opportunities to emerge in a more unified Korean economy, a desirable change for South Koreans struggling with slower rates of growth.

But to date, economic partnerships between North and South Korea have produced mixed results.

After a dramatic 2013 shutdown at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a factory park for South Korean companies operating in North Korea, the firms were allowed to resume operations after five months of tough negotiations with North Korean officials. But South Korean businesses also incurred close to $1 billion in losses before production resumed.

These past events, though, do not weigh heavily on South Korean millennials like Baek.

He said many of his friends and colleagues know the financial costs of unification runs high for members of his generation, as does the cost of supporting the pensions of a rapidly aging South Korean population.

South Korea's Financial Services Commission has estimated $500 billion would be required to rebuild a single economy across a time span of 20 years.

"We know unification has its costs," Baek said. "But our desire to seize the future runs deeper and we're not afraid to bear that burden."

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