Human rights activists defy North Korea's Olympics charm offensive

By Elizabeth Shim
Human rights activists defy North Korea's Olympics charm offensive
North Korean cheerleaders wave the reunification flags during the women's ice hockey preliminary round between Sweden and the joint North-South Korean team on Monday. Some have criticized Seoul for extending an invitation to a massive delegation of North Korean supporters when only a few qualified for the Olympics.Photo by Andrew Wong/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- The visit from a high-profile North Korean delegation during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is not a sign of progress on the peninsula, human rights activists and South Korean politicians said Tuesday.

The international group of Seoul-based campaigners who had gathered to discuss North Korean abductions of South Korean citizens -- and challenge the assumption that Pyongyang's charm offensive is a positive development -- was meeting on the anniversary of the hijacking of a Korean Air Lines flight in 1969.


The hijacking led to the abduction of 50 South Korean passengers. Thirty-nine were eventually released.

Hwang Won, the father of activist Hwang In-cheol, remains trapped in the secretive regime for more than four decades, along with more than 500 South Korean abductees.

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Hwang In-cheol, who told UPI in December he attempted to smuggle his father out of North Korea in 2013 following North Korea's third nuclear test, said he is not optimistic about détente.

The longtime activist said that in 2006, during the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun, the government's pro-engagement strategies did not help bring his father home.

"That was an era when people were chanting, 'Unification! Unification!'," Hwang told UPI, adding he had been collecting information on his father's whereabouts at the time. "But the most important point is [victims of North Korea abductions] were being thoroughly alienated."

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Hwang also said the current moves of the administration of President Moon Jae-in, being made to possibly "suit the tastes of the North Korean regime" and moving quickly to please Pyongyang, is unleashing for him "traumatic memories" of the previous era, when victims of North Korean human rights violations were being left out of the conversation.

Other activists with Teach North Korean Refugees said a moral imperative to repatriate Hwang's father remains amid the torrent of favorable media coverage of the North Korean delegation that included Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong.

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Peter Daley, a professor at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul who has helped build Hwang's online presence, agreed and said the festivities that have accompanied North-South détente should not deter those seeking to hold North Korea accountable.

"I think one important aspect is it's not a historical event, it's an ongoing crime," Daley said, referring to the airline abduction. "It's nice that North Koreans are coming here smiling and dancing, but I think a true sign of change and good intentions would be [for the North] to help resolve some of these outstanding crimes."


South Korean main opposition party politicians, including conservatives, are supporting Hwang's cause. They condemned North Korea for depriving Hwang of his family on Tuesday.

Hwang said he was 2 years old when his father was abducted and grew up "envious of kids who could ride on their fathers' shoulders."

Hwang also struggled as a child and his family would tell him his father "would be home for Christmas" for years, until he realized his father was not coming home.

"I miss him," Hwang says in a documentary the group aired on Tuesday.

Kim Seok-woo, director of the National Development Institute in Seoul, said the abductions stand as symbols of an ongoing "era of barbarism."

A former South Korean diplomat, Kim Seok-woo said the abductions provide evidence of North Korea's systematic human rights violations that "involve members of the highest level of government."

He also criticized Seoul for being "dragged around" by Pyongyang, while extending an invitation to a massive delegation of North Korean supporters, about 700 in total.

That number is "not suitable" relative to the "very small number" of North Korean Olympians competing in the Winter Games, he said.


The research institute representative also voiced concerns North Korea may be biding for time while continuing work on its nuclear arsenal, and using South Korean taxpayers' money to fund the staging of its soft power at the Olympics.

Signe Poulsen, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, told UPI there is no place under international law for amnesties for crimes against humanity, referring to the multiple allegations of rights abuses against the Kim Jong Un regime.

But Poulsen did not rule out the possibility the current détente could still effectively address those issues.

"Approaches toward resolving human rights violations preferably should be victim-centric," the U.N. official said, adding policy should not isolate those who are "already isolated."

"In that sense I would add one more thing, which is we don't see engagement and accountability as opposing each other," Poulsen said.

"Rather they are processes that are mutually reinforcing, if we are looking at a more sustainable way of moving forward."

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