South Koreans: Humanitarian aid to North Korea key to fighting rights abuses

By Elizabeth Shim and Jennie Oh  |  Feb. 22, 2018 at 9:56 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter
| License Photo
Sign up for our weekly Korea Now newsletter
An exclusive report putting perspective on the week's most important developments.

SEOUL, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- North Korea's nuclear weapons provocations have often been blamed for stealing attention from human rights and responsible for decisions to cut off international food aid.

But South Koreans who are no strangers to North Korean belligerence told UPI on Thursday they still favor providing humanitarian assistance to North Koreans as a way to alleviate some of the regime's gravest human rights abuses.

The violations they addressed remained confined to issues that could be resolved with outside help, like food or medical assistance.

Cho Hoi-soo, 28, a marketer living in Seoul, acknowledged that North Korea's human rights situation is not an issue that comes to her mind on a day-to-day basis.

"I know North Korea human rights violations are a critical part of the larger problems in the country," she said. "It's a serious problem. I have no background in North Korea human rights, but it would be good for the South to help the North."

Cho and others, who have been bearing witness to the rapid detente between North and South Korea at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, are implicitly endorsing South Korean President Moon Jae-in's cautious approach to North Korea human rights.

"Human rights should get an equal amount of interest" as nuclear weapons, Cho said. "But it should be addressed in a careful way."

Cho, who had been waiting at Seoul Station for a visiting American friend to arrive from the Olympics, also said the Winter Games have brought peace and that the unified Korea team entry at the opening ceremony had left a positive impression.

Her friend, an expatriate in China, said she attended the women's ice hockey match between the unified Korea team and Sweden.

"There was such an interesting energy," said Cho's friend, who asked not to be identified. "As a third-party spectator, just to see the energy in the room as people cheered, 'You're doing great,' or 'Let's go,' was a very unique experience."

But forgiving views like Cho's could collide with policy approaches in Washington, where the Trump administration is still leaving military options on the table, and the government continues to withhold humanitarian aid after provocations increased in 2017.

Not all South Koreans like the policies, and some said they have succumbed to Trump fatigue.

Shin Jun-yeong, 43, said there should be no restrictions placed on providing humanitarian assistance, including medical aid.

He also aired grievances about U.S. President Donald Trump and his brash approach to threatening North Korea on social media.

"It's not even their [the Americans'] problem. Trump is excessively intervening in affairs," he said.

Older South Koreans are less critical of the United States and are more cautious about North Korea's friendly overtures.

A 75-year-old man who asked to be identified only by his surname Jeong said he has reservations about aid.

"I don't think we should help [the North Koreans] at this point. Unless the North Korean government changes, I don't think new developments can come about, including unification or human rights improvements," he said. "North-South relations have improved a bit, on the outside. But realistically, there are no changes."

As the decades pass and division continues, different generations of South Koreans are no longer on the same page about how to alleviate North Korea's human rights situation, according to Kim Hyun-jung, a professor at Dong-a University Graduate School of International Studies.

"South Koreans' interest in North Korean citizens that they've never met before is getting weaker," Kim said. "That is why it is also hard to reach a consensus on humanitarian assistance."

But South Koreans who see humanitarian aid as an unconditional way of keeping in contact with the North, and not politicizing aid regardless of Pyongyang's military provocations, might be on the right track, according to Signe Poulsen, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul.

"I think it is important to understand the issues of humanitarian assistance and human rights are not an 'either or,' it's an 'and'," Poulsen told UPI Thursday. "Through providing humanitarian assistance you provide engagement and get a picture into North Korea, what's happening, and how things could be better."

Poulsen said that progress in the North's human rights situation goes hand in hand with attaining peace and security.

"What our ultimate goal is for people in North Korea to live their lives freely with dignity, and the rights we take for granted -- with enough food, education and the capacity to make choices about their own lives."

Both U.S. and South Korea aid to North Korea has dropped precipitously since 2009 in response to the nuclear standoff and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010, an attack that may have been ordered by Kim Yong Chol, the North Korean vice chairman of the ruling Workers' Party Central Committee.

There are signs that times are changing, however.

On Thursday, South Korean media reported Kim is to visit South Korea on Sunday for the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, and could be seated near Ivanka Trump as détente builds momentum on the peninsula.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories