South Korea places human rights as one of its main policy principles and is a member of seven international treaties. In recent months, the Moon administration has faced increased international criticism over its handling of human rights issues among its two neighboring countries – North Korea and China. President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights activist who came into office through the candlelight movement, has avoided actively addressing the topic of international human rights while seeking to improve bilateral relations with both countries. While the Moon administration prioritizes peace and prosperity on the peninsula, the Human Rights Foundation said South Korea has yet to release its policy on human rights issues, establish the North Korea Human Rights Foundation, and appoint a North Korea human rights ambassador.1 Following North Korea’s threat to pull out of the inter-Korean military agreement over anti-Pyongyang leaflets in June 2020, the administration has intensified crackdowns on cross-border leaflets while initiating inspections on North Korea activist groups.2 On China, the administration has refrained from openly raising human rights issues including the Hong Kong National Security Law and the Uighur human rights violations in Xinjiang.3 While the South Korean general public acknowledges the human rights abuses, there seems to be a divergence in terms of foreign policy towards international human rights. This article therefore seeks to understand the diverging South Korean perspective towards international human rights issues in North Korea and China.
South Korean perspectives on North Korea human rights issues
After North Korea launched a pressure campaign over anti-Pyongyang leaflets and demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in June 2020, the Ministry of Unification (MOU) stated that “leaflets do more harm than good,” and eventually revoked operation permits for two defector groups over security concerns.4 The MOU then launched an investigation into 25 civic organizations, including 13 organizations operated by North Korean defectors.5 The international community, including UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana and Human Rights Watch, raised concerns that such regulations could impede efforts to improve the human rights condition in North Korea. In response, the MOU stated that these probes are independent from inter-Korean developments and do not target North Korean defector organizations.6 Meanwhile, the Moon administration continued efforts to improve inter-Korean relations and provide humanitarian aid amid the pandemic, and Minister Lee In-young has repeatedly called for humanitarian cooperation in areas such public health, family reunions, and food aid.7
Such developments have sparked debate among the conservatives and progressives on the administration’s approach towards North Korean human rights. Progressives supported the administration’s decision to crack down on leaflets, and argued that the “ineffective” anti-Pyongyang leaflets threaten peace and the daily lives of North and South Koreans.8 They stated that because leaflets could threaten inter-Korean relations and lead to further provocations, it was reasonable for the Democratic Party to accelerate the preparation of legal measures to ban defector groups from launching leaflets.9 In addition, progressives stated that the two countries should return to dialogue rather than escalating tensions on the peninsula.
Conservatives criticized the Moon administration for being soft on North Korea and threatening democratic values. They stated that the leaflets launched by defector groups are an effective tool for cross-border information exchange, which could reveal the truth about the Kim Jong-un regime.10 While the overall effectiveness of leaflets could be debated, conservatives warned that the government should protect democratic values, in particular the freedom of speech, and refrain from using defectors as a “political tool” in responding to the North’s threats.11 They further urged the government to listen to the warnings from the international community and refrain from caving to the North’s demands.12
Conservatives argued that instead of focusing on pursuing inter-Korean dialogue and advancing peace, the government should prioritize the issue of national security and denuclearization. They argued that the Moon administration should focus on the security threats posed by the North’s demolishment of the inter-Korean liaison office and the regime’s possession of nuclear weapons rather than focusing on achieving peace on the peninsula.13 They argued that there cannot be peace before denuclearization, and urged the administration to review the national security policy, enhance confidence building with the US, and refrain from threatening the sanctions regime.14 Even if denuclearization and peace are achieved on the peninsula, however, conservatives believe human rights abuses cannot be eliminated if the Kim regime stays in power.15 That is, peace alone cannot improve human rights because the Kim regime will continue to violate human rights to stay in power. In other words, peace, denuclearization, and the Kim regime cannot coexist. Therefore, conservatives have urged the administration to pressure the regime on human rights issues, increase the cost of violating human rights, and develop a North Korea human rights policy.16
North Korean human rights – political rights, social and economic rights, and right to peace
Min Tae Eun argues that the difference between progressive and conservative thinking on North Korean human rights overall is their focus on different aspects of human rights.17 While both conservatives and progressives work towards improving human rights, conservatives focus on the right to liberty (political rights) while progressives focus on social and economic rights. Because conservatives focus on the right to liberty, this means they believe that North Koreans cannot fully enjoy their human rights without the toppling of the Kim regime. On the other hand, progressives focus on “practical” social and economic rights in line with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR), which they view as more achievable and realistic in the short-term. They believe social and economic rights can be advanced through humanitarian assistance through food aid, medical supplies, and family reunions. Therefore, the United Future Party focuses on human rights while the Democratic Party places a heavier focus on ‘practical’ human rights and North Koreans’ livelihood through humanitarian assistance.
Min argues that another factor that affects thinking on North Korean human rights is the progressive and conservatives’ different perceptions of the Kim regime, which is affected by the level of threat perception. While both sides acknowledge the security and military threat posed by the regime, the degree of threat perception varies based on both external and internal factors. For example, President Roh Tae-woo’s threat perception of the North decreased as the South’s economic, military, and diplomatic positioning strengthened with continued economic growth and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. On the other hand, President Park Guen-hye’s threat perception of the North increased after it conducted missile tests, cut off cross-border communications, and announced the Byungjin policy. Since there is a negative correlation between threat perceptions and viewing North Korea as a cooperative partner, Min argues that progressives are more likely to see the North Korean regime as a partner for cooperation than a security threat while conservatives are less likely to see the Kim regime as a cooperation partner.
Min states that these two factors ultimately affect progressives and conservatives’ perspective on policies towards North Korea. Since conservatives focus on the right to liberty and see the Kim regime as a security threat that conducts missile tests for regime survival, they are less likely to see Kim Jong-un as a trustworthy cooperative partner for dialogue to advance human rights. On the other hand, progressives perceive the Kim regime more as a cooperative partner to provide humanitarian assistance to the North both due to the lower level of threat perception, but also out of necessity to improve the livelihood of North Koreans. That is, they see the need to cooperate with the regime, which is ultimately responsible for advancing social and economic rights of its citizens. Min pointed out that President Moon Jae-in’s policy towards the North is in line with presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, and is therefore more willing to work towards inter-Korean dialogue and cooperate on humanitarian aid to improve ‘practical’ social and economic rights. It is evident that progressives are more willing to conduct direct bilateral cooperation to improve social rights, which will ultimately be led by the North.
Cheong Wookshik argues that in addition to first generation political rights and second generation social and economic rights, there is a need to focus on third generation rights – the right to peace and the right to development – which can in turn advance first and second generation rights.18 In line with progressive thinking on human rights, Cheong argues that the Moon administration can advance third generation rights in line with the 2016 Declaration on the Right to Peace through denuclearization and a peace regime. Unlike conservatives, Cheong assumes that the threat to the right to peace, and ultimately human rights as a whole, is not the Kim regime, but rather the hostile situation on the peninsula which drives the North’s militarization. To improve the human rights situation in the North, he argues that the administration can improve the right to peace through a peace regime and denuclearization, and the right to economic development through sanctions relief.
Specifically, Cheong argues that the Moon administration should work towards reducing the size of the military on both sides, decrease overall military spending, and pursue a peace economy. Cheong sees a trade-off between strengthening US-ROK relations and advancing North Korean human rights, arguing that the installment of THAAD and expansion of Pyeongtaek threatens North and South Koreans’ livelihoods and their right to peace. Alternatively, he suggests that cooperation with the North, development in inter-Korean relations, and the subsequent reduction of the size of the North Korean military can convert existing resources to advance human rights. For example, inter-Korean projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Keumkang tourism can provide opportunities the North Korean people who transition from soldiers to civilian workers after the reduction in military size. In addition, Cheong suggests that the reduction in defense spending would allow for increased spending in humanitarian aid projects that can improve social and economic rights. Overall, he sees peace and economic development as necessary components in advancing North Korean human rights.
South Korean perspectives on Chinese human rights issues
Following the anti-extradition bill protests from late 2019, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented the National Security Law on June 30, 2020. Korea in June did not join the 27 countries that raised concerns that this bill would erode the fundamental human rights of Hong Kong citizens, urging China to reconsider the bill.19 Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) stated that it is important that Hong Kong maintains “a high degree of autonomy under China’s ‘one nation, two systems’ policy.’”20 Regarding the US decision to suspend Hong Kong’s preferential treatment, MOFA further stated, "We support diplomatic efforts to maintain stable, amicable and cooperative relations between the US and China as they are vital to peace and prosperity in East Asia and also in the world.” The Moon administration has yet to take a position on Xinjiang’s Uighur human rights abuses through mass surveillance, detention, and forced labor. Amid the US-China great power competition including human rights issues, the National Assembly stated that Korea would need to urge the international community to establish a cooperative regional order, and seriously consider Korea’s future role in an era of uncertainty.21
Progressives acknowledged that the National Security Law threatens democratic values but took a more cautious stance as they viewed the human rights issue through the lens of the US-China trade war. During the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests in 2019, progressives urged the CCP to listen to the Hong Kong citizens, refrain from police brutality, and find a peaceful resolution.22 After the National Security Law passed and the Trump administration threatened to suspend Hong Kong’s special status while pressuring the South to join the Economic Prosperity Network (EPN), progressives worried that the US-China trade war was expanding to conflicts in the area of Hong Kong and Uighur human rights issues as well.23 While acknowledging that the National Security Law threatens democratic values and human rights, progressives expressed concerns of being caught in the trade war, and urged the administration to pursue a policy direction that maximizes national interests without yielding to pressure from both the US and China.
Conservatives criticized the Moon administration for remaining silent on the Hong Kong National Security Law and urged the government to practice diplomacy that would benefit Korea’s long-term national interests.24 Although conservatives acknowledged that Korea faces challenges in choosing sides between its security ally and trade partner in the US-China trade war, they argued that the administration needs to base its policy stance on the principles of freedom, universal human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.25 In other words, while Korea could practice strategic ambiguity on issues such as the EPN, it should stand in solidarity with the US and the international community in standing against China’s human rights abuses. However, conservatives also cautioned that when doing so, Korea needs to maintain friendly relations with China.26 Overall, conservatives stated that standing by human rights principles would be in Korea’s national interest since it would protect national security.27
Chinese human rights –Diplomacy amid the US-China great power competition
Kim Tae Hwan argues that as the world sees the “blocization” of values built on identity politics, Korea needs to maintain a neutral position while upholding inclusive values such as peace, coexistence, and reconciliation.28 Kim states that compared to the Cold War where the “us” versus “them” mentality was built on ideological blocs, the US, Japan, China, and Russia are now driving a “blocization” of liberal and non-liberal values that is built on identity politics based on ethnic, religious, and other primal identities. As this takes the form of scattered confrontations between identities, the world is seeing the formation of liberal and anti-liberal blocs especially led by the US and China. Kim warns that while liberal values such as freedom, human rights, and democratic values are important, joining anti-China and anti-Russia blocs led by the US will only lead to Korea becoming engulfed in further conflict and confrontations. He therefore argues that amid this global trend, Korea as a middle power needs to maintain a neutral position and uphold inclusive values such as “peace” and “coexistence” to prevent being entrapped by either side.
Kim further argues that in terms of public diplomacy, Korea needs to maintain a neutral position and play the role of an arbitrator and conciliator. To do so, Korea, especially in its relationship with China, should recognize the plurality of identity and focus on inclusivity over exclusivity. That is, instead of becoming an “enemy” with China, Korea can recognize differences and coexist as a competitor and friend. Going forward, Kim states that Korea should place its focus as a mediator and conciliator while cooperating with middle power countries to promote shared values for sustainable peace, security, and development. By doing so, Korea will be able to maintain freedom in its foreign policy without having to choose a side between the US and China.
In contrast, Lee Seong-hyon argues that rather than diplomacy that focuses on maintaining a neutral position, Korea needs to develop a strategy in terms of its positioning between the US and China.29 Warning that Korea faces an even greater dilemma compared to the THAAD incident, Lee states Korea should realize that maintaining a neutral position and avoiding choosing a side could lead to doubts from both the US and China, and lead to further difficulties going forward. Lee Dong Ryul goes a step further and suggests that in the short-term, Korea should cautiously build its relationship with China on areas such as economic cooperation and people-to-people relations while delaying policy options on sensitive issues that could irritate China. In the long-term, he suggests that Korea diversify its diplomacy and build a network with neighboring countries away from China and the US.30
While both progressives and conservatives in Korea oppose human rights violations, the Moon administration has refrained from taking a stance on these issues, especially in North Korea and China. Based on the discussions above, it is evident that on the issue of North Korea, the Moon administration and progressives are focused on cooperating with the North to promote social and economic rights as well as the right to peace. Therefore, they seek to avoid confrontation with the North that could escalate tensions and diverge from their objective in advancing “practical” human rights, especially through humanitarian aid. In contrast, conservatives focus on political rights and are less willing to pursue direct bilateral cooperation with the North. Meanwhile, the Moon administration faces a dilemma regarding human rights issues in China amid the US-China great power competition. While supporting democratic and liberal values in the abstract, the administration views the Hong Kong and Xinjiang human rights issues through the lens of the US-China trade war and fears that escalation in tensions would pressure Korea to choose a side between its security ally and trading partner. Therefore, Korea is looking to pursue a relatively neutral stance in public diplomacy while promoting the concepts of peace and coexistence as a middle power country.
In Washington, the Uighur issue is being called “genocide” and the Hong Kong situation is seen as a violation of China’s most fundamental promise to the international community. Human rights are in the forefront of thinking about China while a Biden administration would likely put it high on the agenda with North Korea too. The Moon administration’s refusal to address these issues is risking a sharp clash between allies. The unusual disinterest by Trump in human rights issues does not mean that in 2021 Moon’s preference for “neutrality” will not be tested in a serious manner.
1. Ministry of Unification, “Moon Jae-In’s Policy on the Korean Peninsula,” https://www.unikorea.go.kr/eng_unikorea/policylssues/koreanpeninsula/strategies/; Human Rights Watch, “South Korea Events of 2019,” https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/south-korea
2. Timothy W. Martin, “Kim Jong Un’s Sister Threatens South Korea Over Leaflets,” Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/kim-jong-uns-sister-threatens-south-korea-over-leaflets-11591267505; “Unification ministry to begin probe into activist groups from mid-August,” Yonhap, July 24, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200724004000325?section=search
3. Kim Seung-yeon, “S. Korea backs Hong Kong’s prosperity under ‘one nation, two systems’ policy: ministry,” Yonhap, May 28, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200528007251325?section=news
4. Koh Byung-joon, “Gov’t expected to revoke operation permits for 2 defector groups this week over leafleting,” Yonhap, July 14, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200714002351325?section=search
5. “Ministry says probe into defector groups launched after sufficient explanations,” Yonhap, August 13, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200813005200325?section=search
6. “U.N. expert requests meeting with unification ministry amid concerns over leafleting,” Yonhap, July 22, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200722004300325?section=search
8. “[사설] 남북 전단 살포 모두 백해무익하고 시대착오적이다,”한겨례, 2020년6월21일, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/opinion/editorial/950313.html
9. “[사설]기어이 대북전단 살포 시도한 탈북민단체,” 경향신문, 2020년6월23일,
10. “[사설] ‘北 체제 선전 행사’ 연상시켰다는 통일부 ‘外信 투어’,” 조선일보, 2020년 8월13일, http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2020/08/13/2020081300027.html
12. “[사설] 대북 전단이 국보법상 회합·통신죄라니 국민을 놀리나,” 조선일보, 2020년 8월4일, http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2020/08/03/2020080303622.html
13. “[사설] ‘평화’ 주장하며 평화 막는 북핵엔 한마디 안 하는 정권, 조선일보, 2020년6월29일,
14. “[사설] 北 압박엔 입 다물고 탈북민단체에 회초리 든 정부,” 세계일보, 2020년6월10일, https://www.segye.com/newsView/20200610515282; “[사설] ‘평화’ 주장하며 평화 막는 북핵엔 한마디 안 하는 정권,” 조선일보, 2020년6월29일, http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2020/06/29/2020062900017.html
15. “[사설] "평화가 北 인권 가져온다"는 것은 맞는 말인가,’ 조선일보, 2018년12월12일, https://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2018/12/11/2018121103409.html
16. “[사설] "한국 정부 北 인권 전략이 뭔지 알고 싶다",” 조선일보, 2018년7월3일, https://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2018/07/02/2018070203201.html
17. Min Tae Eun, “대북-통일정책 관련 주요 쟁점과 정책추진방향” [Major Issues and Policy Directions on North Korea-Unification Policy], Korea Institute for National Unification, December 31, 2019.
18. Cheong Wookshik, “한반도 평화체제와 평화권: 평화-발전-인권의 선순환을 위하여” [Peace Regime and the Right to Peace on the Korean Peninsula: For the virtuous cycle of peace-development-human rights], 제3세대인권과북한 [Third-generation human rights and the North], No. 7 2019.
20. Kim Seung-yeon, “S. Korea says Hong Kong should enjoy ‘high degree of autonomy’,” Yonhap News Agency, June 30, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200630008300325?section=search
21. Kim Ye-kyung, “2020년 미중 전략경쟁 전망과 한국의 대응방향” [Prospects for Strategic Competition between the U.S. and China in 2020 and Korea’s Response], National Assembly Research Service, December 31, 2019.
22. “[사설]격화되는 홍콩 사태, 평화적으로 해결해야,” 경향신문, 2019년 8월12일, http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?art_id=201908122035005
23. “[사설] 우려되는 홍콩 보안법 통과와 미-중 ‘신냉전’ 격화, 한겨례, 2020년5월29일, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/opinion/editorial/946970.html
24. “홍콩보안법 한마디도 못하는 중국,” 조선일보, 2020년5월28일, http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2020/05/28/2020052800256.html;
“Adroit diplomacy called for,” Korea JoonAng Daily, May 31, 2020, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2020/05/31/editorials/diplomacy-confrontation-korean-peninsula/20200531200400090.html
25. “[사설] 일파만파 홍콩 사태…정부는 어떤 원칙으로 대응할 건가,” 한국경제, 2020년5월29일, https://www.hankyung.com/opinion/article/2020052915931
27. “[사설]中 ‘홍콩 보안법’, 일국양제 위반이자 국제질서 위협이다,” 동아일보, 2020년5월29일,
28. Kim Tae Hwan, “Value Diplomacy Driving Global “Blocization” of Values: Implications of Great Power Cases for Korea’s Public Diplomacy,” Culture and Politics, Vol. 6 No. 1 2019.
29. Lee Seong-hyon, “2019년 한중관계 평가와 2020년 전망” [Evaluation of Korea-China Relations in 2019 and Prospects for 2020], Sejong Institute, December 23, 2019.
30. Lee Dong-Ryul, “[신년기획 특별논평 시리즈 – EAI 2020 전망과 전략] ③ 한중관계와 한국의 대중 외교전략,” East Asia Institute, January 13, 2020, http://eai.or.kr/main/search_view.asp?intSeq=10439&board=kor_report