Last week, a story of mine was published describing the conundrum South Korea's government faces as it decides whether to support a United Nations investigation into North Korea's human rights abuses.
The issue is controversial in Seoul but, traditionally, it has cut across partisan lines. Conservatives typically say that the South should call out North Korea for rights abuses, even if that raises inter-Korean tensions and lowers the likelihood for dialogue. Liberals tend to place a premium on dialogue, and feel it’s the South’s job to change North Korea’s behavior with engagement — not a hard line. But I was reminded in the course of my reporting that South Korea still hasn't really figured out its approach to the North, more than 50 years after war split them in two.
For this story, I had an interesting interview with Song Min-soon, a foreign minister from 2006 until 2008 under the liberal government of Roh Moo-hyun, who talked at length about the debate. He described one line of thinking in the South about the negative consequences of vocally backing the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, or COI, which I quoted in the story.
Song told me that other countries “should understand the sensitivities faced by South Korea” when speaking out about human rights. “Those countries, they don’t have a real need to sit down with North Korea. We do. The new South Korean government has a plan to talk with the North Koreans about denuclearization, economic issues. But if we lead efforts on the COI, that won’t happen.”
But Song’s personal views are different. As he stated in an e-mail sent Sunday, Song believes that North Korea’s human rights are grave enough to deserve investigation, and that South Korea should support the U.N. probe. Song said that while the European Union or the United States are better situated to play the most vocal role, he also believes that South Korea’s incoming government will “join, if not lead,” international efforts to set up the COI.
Song also said that while working under Roh’s government, he sometimes personally opposed South Korea’s unwillingness to back (largely rhetorical) United Nations resolutions on North Korean rights abuses.
Song’s stance offers an important reminder about the blurring philosophies on how the South should approach its neighbor. Indeed, over the last two decades, neither the liberal theory nor the conservative theory has worked as planned, and many analysts hope new President Park Geun-hye can find some middle ground that neither turns a blind eye to its abuses nor leaves it hostile toward Seoul.