WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, the six-party talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear program are scheduled to reconvene in Beijing. If the conferences of the past are any indication, the United States will again face an obstinate North Korea that adamantly refuses to abandon a nuclear program that it views as its sole guarantor of security. Further complicating the position of the United States is the fact that it can no longer rely on the vigorous support of South Korea at the negotiating table. Throughout the recent talks, Seoul has positioned itself as a consistent opponent of American and Japan initiatives, more often aligning itself with the non-interventionist overtures of Beijing than with the more strict negotiation points of Washington or Tokyo.
To explain the growing gulf between these once close allies, an observer need only take into account the puzzling dynamics of public opinion in the South. A recent South Korean opinion poll asked South Koreans who they would support in the event of an American attack on North Korean nuclear installations. Nearly 50 percent of South Korean citizens sampled said they would support the regime of Kim Jong-Il. This troubling response echoed the results of another poll taken last year, with 39% of respondents identifying the U.S. as the greatest threat to South Korea’s security. Only 33% could agree on North Korea, the nation that once invaded the South and continues to maintain a massive military apparatus whose all-encompassing goal is the invasion and subjugation of South Korea.
While cross-border cultural sympathies and anti-Americanism chic can help explicate these results somewhat, another primary explanation is rarely mentioned. In its public relations war with the United States, North Korea has received aid and comfort from an unlikely quarter: the South Korean government. Over the past eight years, two subsequent liberal South Korean governments have adhered to the “sunshine policy,” which advocates appeasement in return for a “closer” relationship with the North Korean state. The policy has not only tempered official South Korean criticism of the North, but has also enabled the state to actively work against the proliferation of negative images of North Korea.
ONE OF THE MORE REPREHENSIBLE outgrowths of this policy is South Korea’s staggering level of ignorance regarding the issue of human rights abuses carried out by the North Korean government. A recent example of this insufferable lack of popular awareness involved two North Korean doctors, now living in South Korea, who have taken the aliases of Dr. Lee Byom-Shik and Chun Ji Suang (the North Korean intelligence services regularly target high profile defectors for abduction or assassination). The two men — both trained chemists — were formerly employed by the North Korean government for “special tasks.” While working at a top secret chemical weapons research installation in 1979, Dr. Lee supervised the execution of “political prisoners” using experimental chemicals, which often brought death only following hours of agony. For his accomplishments in exterminating the subjects with various chemical cocktails, Lee was awarded a commendation for service to the state.
Mr. Chun was part of a 1994 scientific effort that traveled from gulag to gulag, attempting to determine the best chemicals for use in targeted assassinations carried out overseas. Chun’s team, Team A, utilized animal guinea pigs, while Team B used families of prisoners for final testing. His testimony is supported by the accounts of other defectors, including Kwon Hyuk, former commander of one of North Korea’s largest concentration camps, Camp 22. At Camp 22, recounted Hyuk during a BBC interview, families were herded into chambers where they were gassed to death using weaponized aerosols. Hyuk remembered watching desperate parents attempt to give their children mouth- to-mouth resuscitation, only to die minutes later.
These horrific stories — which recall the worse nightmares of the Holocaust — stirred numerous human rights groups to action. Many of these organizations, including the U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, have since invited Dr. Lee and Mr. Chun to speak at various events. When informed of these requests, the South Korean government decided, inexplicably, to cancel the two men’s travel visas, effectively preventing them from leaving the country. Seeking an explanation, Wiesenthal Center assistant dean Abraham Cooper confronted a South Korean foreign ministry official, asking him why his government was so reticent in allowing the men to travel overseas to recount their experiences before international audiences. The official responded by admitting that the South Korean government was aware of North Korea’s chemical weapons testing, but did not want to threaten ongoing talks with Pyongyang by allowing the damaging information to be excessively publicized.
The cowardly censorship efforts of the South Korean government have since extended past petty government travel restrictions, often taking on a chilling Orwellian-tone. In March of 2005, a grainy video surfaced that offered a rare insight into the barbarity that defines everyday life in North Korea. The video, shot secretly by an astonishingly daring anonymous cameraman, showed a gathered crowd of thousands of North Koreans. The throng watched expectantly as two men — deemed “enemies of the state” — were tied to stakes and shot by policemen. Such public killings are endemic in the North, used by the Kim regime to further terrify the cowed populace. Recent defectors have described episodes involving the executions of women and children for minor offenses, such as stealing 60 kilograms of corn. The government makes a show of their deaths, hanging them in public squares or forcing groups of North Koreans to stone them.
Verbal accounts of these episodes have existed for decades, but never before has such brutality been captured on video. The impact of the footage was tragically minimal, however, due to the reprehensible actions taken by Seoul. Taking appeasement to a truly loathsome height, the South Korean government actively sought to censor all national media outlets, forbidding them from showing the recording during their news broadcasts. When the footage was finally shown in Japan, the sunshine-beholden government of President Roh Moo-hyun played down its significance.
SUCH CRAVEN APATHY IS standard procedure for President Roh’s administration, as was made apparent when the U.N. Humans Rights Commission gathered in April of 2005 in order to pass a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights record. While thousands of their brethren were being worked to death less than 100 miles from the DMZ, South Korea had the gall to abstain from the ballot, a departure from their previously consistent “yea” votes. A South Korean government official later justified the action by stating that it would help “create an environment where North Korea can change on its own.”
Also disquieting is the indifference displayed by the Roh government towards those brave and desperate few who manage — at the risk of their lives and those of their families — to escape North Korea. Last year, the South Korean foreign ministry, in a towering illustration of official negligence, denied the very existence of North Korean refugees in China, disregarding reams of media reports and articles. Only after conclusive proof was provided by South Korean human rights groups was the foreign ministry shamed into abandoning its oblivious stance.
In late 2004, just as conditions in North Korea worsened due to a harsh winter season, the Roh government announced a reduction in resettlement benefits by two-thirds for all North Korean escapees who chose to live in the South. At the same time, in an attempt covertly aimed at deterring North Koreans from fleeing south, government screening and interrogation processes were intensified and lengthened. The Roh government explained their actions by warning of increased North Korean infiltration and espionage, a highly dubious claim, considering their pernicious history of gutting South Korea’s counterintelligence and security program. The motives behind this alteration in policy were made clear during a speech by Roh’s Minister of Unification, who declared, “we disapprove of mass defections.”
The performance of the South Korean private sector is analogous to the government’s lethargy. Other than some truly heroic Christian and human rights organizations, South Korean NGO’s have busied themselves with utopian plans for reunification, ostensibly avoiding the arduous work of actually aiding Northern refugees.
FILLING THE VOID CREATED BY Seoul’s timidity is the United States. The Bush administration has led the effort to help North Koreans by supporting the North Korean Human Rights Act, which was approved by Congress last year. The bill provides for increased funding of pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations that actively aid North Korean refugees. Resources have also been earmarked for radio stations that transmit freedom-oriented broadcasts into North Korea, hopefully bypassing government censors.
Ironically, the bill also streamlines the process through which North Koreans can seek refuge in the United States, effectively making the U.S. a more attractive haven than neighboring South Korea. South Korean human rights advocates have regularly expressed shame regarding their own government’s recalcitrance in aiding fellow Koreans, especially when compared to the proactive stance of the United States. While refusing to comment publicly on the bill, South Korean officials privately displayed their typical tentativeness to the press, expressing “concern” over what effect the bill would have on reunification talks.
Further indications of Seoul’s morally reprehensible policy of accommodation include their recent refusal to include North Korea by name in their defense planning policy papers, while at the same time promoting different forms of economic incentives, i.e. bribes, to the hermit kingdom, while asking for no concessions on the part of Pyongyang.
In deference to the delicate strategic reality that pervades the Korean peninsula, no one is arguing for overtly aggressive moves on the part of South Korea. But is actively aiding refugees who risk their lives escaping starvation and death asking too much? Is publicly condemning North Korea’s blatant disregard for human life too severe a response? In addition, the notion that the sunshine policy can help improve the situation in North Korea has been proven categorically false, with Kim Jong-Il’s regime continuing its practices of mass murder and weapons proliferation, deaf to the South’s conciliatory tone.
The historical precedent for appeasement is a disastrous one, and this modern incarnation should prove little different. South Korea’s sunshine policy has done nothing to moderate the regime of Kim Jong-Il, quite the opposite. At the same time, it has warped the perceptions of many South Koreans, who now feel greater sympathy towards the criminal regime in Pyongyang than towards the United States. It appears, with regard to North, that the South Korean left has taken a page from their American brethren, eschewing strenuous opposition to tyrannical governments in favor of accommodation and appeasement. When the government of Kim Jong-Il falls into the dustbin of history, many South Koreans can look forward to explaining to their northern cousins why they stood by and did so little to save them from their hellish predicament.