► Recent actions by the South Korean government to address human rights abuses and concerns in North Korea and China signal a resolve to uphold liberal international norms.
► Whether a policy change towards North Korea will actually lead to an improvement in the human rights of North Koreans, which are dire and worsening still, or a change in the behavior of North Korea is another question. The answer is likely not, especially given Beijing’s political and diplomatic cover.
► Evidence suggests that Seoul is willing to take on a more assertive role in its ever-important corner of the world towards upholding the Liberal International Order. It is willing to address North Korean human rights abuses using various legal means, pressure China on its human rights abuses, and join in international efforts to curb Russian aggression.
If there was any question before, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an increasingly defiant and assertive China, and the sanctions-flaunting missile testing by North Korea make it clear the U.S.-led Liberal International Order, and its rules-based foundation, is at an inflection point. Under such conditions, countries like South Korea, which bridge the divide between revisionist powers and the U.S., are as crucial as ever.
Recent actions by the South Korean government to address human rights abuses and concerns in North Korea and China signal a resolve to uphold liberal international norms. However, the domestic political context and broader regional and international motivations and implications of these decisions warrant a closer look. When put into perspective, one can see a country pursuing a cautiously more assertive role for itself amid an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment.
Shortly after the inauguration of South Korea’s newest conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, the government in Seoul appointed Lee Shin-hwa as Ambassador-at-large for International Cooperation on Human Rights in North Korea. The post, created by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016 (NKHRA), is designed to coordinate efforts internationally to improve the human rights of North Koreans and document abuses by North Korea to raise awareness and possibly support future legal redress.
Notably, the post remained vacant throughout the entirety of the previous government under President Moon Jae-in. It is tempting, and not altogether inaccurate, to read this as evidence that Moon, a progressive, was uninterested in addressing North Korea’s human rights abuses or upholding liberal ideals. Preferring engagement with Pyongyang, progressive South Korean lawmakers are less keen than their conservative colleagues to pressure North Korea over human rights abuses.
However, in judging the broader meaning and implications of left-right policy differences on North Korean human rights, it is important to note that they are primarily domestic priorities and differences in visions for North-South relations. The Moon administration’s preference for engagement with Pyongyang is motivated by a belief that such a policy better addresses peninsula and regional security concerns that, from a progressive point of view, are aggravated by more aggressive policies pursued by conservative governments.
Structural limitations to South Korean democracy aside, the Moon administration is rated as stemming a democratic recession that had started under his conservative predecessors. Moon worked closely with his American counterparts through multiple summits and outreach with Pyongyang to improve North-South and US-North Korean economic and political relations.
One cannot be faulted for holding the view, but to conclude that Moon Jae-in, or the Democratic Party to which he belonged, is illiberal would be a stretch. The NKHRA, after all, passed without opposition and was viewed by some as evidence that progressives are more willing to hold North Korea accountable for its human rights violations.
But even assuming the best intentions, five years of effort to improve relations failed to bring about substantive changes while obliging Pyongyang’s preference to leave human rights out of the discussion. Other North Korea-related decisions, such as the forced repatriation of two North Korean defectors suspected of murder, beckon at least modest scrutiny of progressive foreign policy priorities and a broader commitment to liberal ideals.
Against this background, it is notable that the Yoon administration is implementing the goals of the North Korean Human Rights Act. It is the first administration to do so. Seoul’s interest in sponsoring the annual U.N. resolution on human rights violations in North Korea, which the Moon administration refused to do, and the implementation of unilateral sanctions against North Korea in response to repeated missile testing, the first since the conservative last held office, is further evidence of a definitive policy shift. Proponents of a more assertive South Korean foreign policy that upholds international rules and norms have reasons to be encouraged.
Whether a policy change towards North Korea will actually lead to an improvement in the human rights of North Koreans, which are dire and worsening still, or a change in the behavior of North Korea is another question. The answer is likely not, especially given Beijing’s political and diplomatic cover.
Would Seoul be encouraged and willing to pursue a tougher stance on China?
South Korea has hedged mainly in its relationship with China and the United States. But the intensifying competition between the two superpowers and mounting international pressure to confront Beijing over its human rights-violating measures against democracy activists in Hong Kong and its Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang puts a strain on this strategy. Although President Yoon has shied away from directly confronting Xi Jinping over China’s human rights abuses, members of his own party (the People’s Power Party) have called for a more explicit stance against China and in solidarity with other democracies.
Seoul’s vote in favor of the resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council to open debate on China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims is notable. The resolution failed to pass the 47-member Council, with the votes split by the political system of the voting members (democracies for, non-democracies against). The move will likely stoke the ire of China, who lobbied members to oppose the resolution.
Whether this move is a harbinger of greater Sino-South Korean friction or even confrontation is yet to be determined. Beijing has shown it is willing to use economic coercion to protest policies by Seoul that it deems undesirable. Such was the case when Seoul supported the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2016. Beijing retaliated by leveling unofficial sanctions against Korean businesses operating in China and disputing Chinese tourism in Korea. South Korea’s asymmetric trading relationship with China leaves it highly vulnerable to such actions.
Just how assertive a role Seoul is willing to play in the international political arena remains an open question. There is evidence that the country’s ruling class, which largely came of age in an era when the country played a considerably less prominent role internationally, still views South Korea as a ‘developing’ country rather than the economically dynamic and the standard-bearer for democracy that it is. The South Korea of today is a known quantity. It is one of Asia’s few liberal democracies that exports not only desirable consumer products but democratic ideas. The same cannot be said of South Korea a generation ago.
The disconnect between how its rulers see the country and how others see it may explain, to some extent, Seoul’s lackluster response, at least initially, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although Seoul would come around to support the international sanctions regime against Moscow, it took some time and perhaps some moderate handwringing from allies, notably Washington. More recently, Seoul’s reluctance to recognize Russians fleeing military conscription as asylum seekers may serve as evidence of South Korea’s limited commitment to upholding liberal international norms.
Overall, we find a country at a crossroads. With a world increasingly divided between poles, one led by Beijing and the other by Washington, Seoul finds itself in a difficult position. The recently implemented export controls on semiconductor technology to China is a significant escalation in an increasingly competitive Sino-US relationship. With further action expected, it is unlikely that South Korea will be able to remain on the sidelines.
Evidence suggests that Seoul is willing to take on a more assertive role in its ever-important corner of the world towards upholding the Liberal International Order. It is willing to address North Korean human rights abuses using various legal means, pressure China on its human rights abuses, and join in international efforts to curb Russian aggression.
There are reasons for skepticism, however. Seoul’s North Korea policy is highly variable; the next administration may opt for engagement and diplomatic appeasement. South Korea’s close economic ties with China mean foreign policy constraints – just how far would Seoul be willing to go in the face of business-crippling economic sanctions? Lastly, it is not clear that South Korean lawmakers see a more significant and constructive role to be played by South Korea internationally.
The evidence suggests cautious optimism, but ultimately, time will tell.