U.S.-South Korea: Turning A Blind-eye To Human Rights On The Korean Peninsula? No Thanks.


In 2005, while serving as the U.S. Marine Attaché in Tokyo I spoke at a UN-sponsored symposium on stopping North Korea’s nascent nuclear weapons program.

The speakers offered different formulas of carrots (oil, food, money), assurances, and pressure that would prompt Kim Jong Il (the current Kim’s father) to give up his quest for nuclear weapons.

Accomplish this, and all would be right with North Korea.

When my turn came, I noted that nobody had mentioned the humanitarian catastrophe and widespread torture that North Korean citizens were suffering. This alone, I argued, was reason enough to isolate and force change in the country.

At the break, two men introduced themselves as being from the U.S. Department of Defense. One of them said, “We wish we could say that.” My answer, “You mean we can’t?”  

I thought that’s what Americans were supposed to do.

Give a similar speech in Seoul these days and it might be the cops showing up in the foyer telling me “You’ll keep quiet if you know what’s good for you.”  And if I was a South Korean citizen – even an escapee from the North Korean gulag, write the message down and send it to North Korea and there could be criminal charges and a spell in prison.

President Moon Jae-in’s South Korean government recently rammed a bill through the National Assembly that further criminalizes South Koreans doing things the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and his sister don’t like.

In this case, the law prohibits the launch of balloons towards North Korea – as South Koreans have been doing for years – containing leaflets critical of the Kim regime and its assault on human rights.  Some messages also describe the reality of life in South Korea (the opposite of what Pyongyang tells it citizens), and the balloons may also carry Bibles, rice, U.S. dollars, and USB sticks containing world news. 

The nominal excuse for the ban?  The balloons might land on South Koreans in the border area.  And also it is littering if they touch down in the wrong place.  One hears these sorts of excuses from Japanese bureaucrats trying to cancel missile defense systems.

The Moon administration and previous leftist South Korean governments over nearly 20 years have tried to placate and buy off North Korea.  Pyongyang’s behavior hasn’t improved, but it does now have improved nuclear weapons capabilities and the means to deliver them.

This could just be Jimmy Carter-like naiveté, but maybe there’s something more going on.

Americans often assume that South Korean governments, regardless of political leanings share Washington’s basic objectives.  Specifically, to maintain a solid US-ROK defense against North Korean aggression, ‘denuclearizing’ the North, and keeping democratic South Korea as part of the U.S. alliance network in Asia – with the PRC on the outside.  

But maybe Moon Jae-in and his colleagues aim for something different?  That is:  unifying South and North Korea – and removing the Americans from the peninsula.  More than a few South Korean leftists see the Americans as ‘imperialists’ whose presence is the reason for a divided peninsula.  

And instead of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons, incorporate them into the unified Korea’s arsenal – and re-orient defense eastwards, against Japan.  In the process, establish a close relationship with the People’s Republic of China.  With nuclear weapons, a powerful conventional force, and a strong economy (currently the world’s 10th largest), Korea can hold its own – or so the theory goes.

Unthinkable?  Maybe not.  Consider President Moon and his closest associates backgrounds and listen to what they say.  Moon once described his delight on hearing the Americans finally lost in Vietnam.  And for some of Moon’s people the description ‘far-leftist’ isn’t quite enough.

Just take Lee In-young, the Unification Minister appointed in July 2020, and read the transcript of his confirmation hearing in the National Assembly.  Lee is biting his tongue but doesn’t seem to have changed much since his days as the #2 person in the Anti-American Youth Association, which was the underground organization providing leadership to Jeondaehyup, the violent, radical 1980’s student organization based upon North Korea’s Juche ideology.  

Dr. Tara O of East Asia Research continues to do excellent work on this topic for anyone interested in understanding the backgrounds, ideologies, and political objectives of Moon Jae-in and South Korea’s leftists.

South Korean opponents of the new bill have spoken up – as have some Americans.  Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and Representative Gerald Connolly (D-VA) have criticized the ‘balloon law’ and other alleged efforts by the Moon administration to restrict his political opponents’ free speech. 

But Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX) got to the heart of the matter:  “Freedom of expression is a core democratic value.  A bright future for the Korean Peninsula rests on North Korea becoming more like South Korea — not the other way around,”

The South Korean government has been spending like drunken sailors in recent years to buy influence in Washington.  So Moon administration officials and supporters have been on the warpath in Washington, arguing that critics of the new law don’t understand the situation and that some human rights aren’t really what people think they are.

President Moon Jae-in is a so-called human rights lawyer.  Perhaps he can read the UN report on human rights in North Korea, and then read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – both of which South Korea is bound by – legally and morally.  And then try to explain away his administration’s blind-eye to North Korean human rights brutality – to include recently refusing to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution on the human rights situation in North Korea.  Perhaps the suffering of North Koreans is just collateral damage as Moon aims for a utopian future on the peninsula.  And maybe that also explains his administration’s intimidation of South Koreans trying to aid fellow Koreans in the North.

The good news?  Despite the law’s passage (with only Moon’s party assembly members voting for it), most South Koreans don’t seem to want everything Moon and his coterie of ideologues want for South Korea.

Opinion polls indicate over 90% support for the U.S.-ROK military alliance.  And 54% favored American forces remaining even after a ‘hypothetical’ unification.  With this in mind, Washington ought to insist Moon clarify his long-term intentions for the alliance.

South Korea and the United States are natural friends.  But like any relationship, the U.S.-South Korea alliance requires nurturing and give-and-take – and even forbearance, verbal and otherwise (to include not squeezing money out of an ally).

But if the Moon government thinks North Korean gulags and brutality aren’t a big deal – and paring down South Korean citizens’ rights isn’t either — one hopes the U.S. government will say otherwise, and say it publicly and for as long as necessary.

That’s what Americans are supposed to do.