How important is North Korean human rights in South Korea’s upcoming presidential election?
By Jungeun Lee, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
March 1, 2022
The 2022 presidential election in South Korea is scheduled to take place on March 9. According to a “poll of polls” by MBC and a research team at Seoul National University, there is a close race between the main opposition presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) and Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, with each candidate drawing around 40% support with little over a week left. President Moon Jae-in has consistently been subject to criticism over his administration’s failure to meaningfully address North Korea's human rights violations, driven by the goal of developing inter-Korean relations and easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair Emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), pointed out that “What South Korea’s action does is to convey to North Korea that human rights have low priority with South Korea and can be bartered away for other objectives.” What can we expect, then, from the next administration to enter the Blue House? When it comes to North Korea’s human rights issues and inter-Korean relations, Lee and Yoon are poles apart.
Lee has vowed to pursue “pragmatic coexistence between the two Koreas by establishing a peace economy system on the Korean Peninsula,” largely inheriting the Moon Jae-in government’s peace process initiative. This may be good news for Moon’s supporters, but the broader South Korean public is unlikely to support this policy, given that there has been no meaningful, lasting progress for the past five years. Despite his ambitious plan for the end-of-war declaration, Moon’s approval ratings have steadily decreased and dropped to 29 percent during his presidency. In a January 2022 poll, North Korea policy was the fifth most cited reason (6%) among respondents who disapproved of the Moon administration. Critics have also noted that the number of North Korean missile tests has increased six-fold compared to the Park Geun-hye administration.
On North Korean denuclearization, Lee supports the pursuit of an “action for action, simultaneous” and “small deal” approach, which is favored by North Korea, China, and Russia. In addition, he proposes easing economic sanctions against North Korea with a “snapback clause,” which would immediately enforce sanctions again if North Korea fails to abide by its promises. In November 2021, Lee stated that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to engage with Kim Jong-un was “too rosy, trying to strike a ‘big deal’ to resolve all issues all at once.” Disappointingly, Lee has not mentioned North Korean human rights issues despite his career as a human rights lawyer. Yoon criticized Lee’s idea of the “snapback clause,” pointing out that such a policy would begin by easing sanctions and restore them if peace efforts backfire. Yoon also questioned how South Korea will restore sanctions if China and Russia disagree. He claimed that Lee’s foreign and security policies are based on “pro-North, pro-China, and anti-U.S.” ideas.
Yoon, in contrast, has proposed a starkly different policy: planning for deploying U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea during emergencies and conducting regular joint military drills “to raise confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella.” Some experts have criticized this approach as “unrealistic,” as the United States would not pursue “nuclear sharing” with South Korea. Nonetheless, Yoon’s starting point to denuclearization is enhancing deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. He supports large-scale joint field exercises between the U.S. and South Korea and emphasizes the necessity of deploying U.S. strategic assets. Yoon’s plan first seeks “substantial” denuclearization steps from North Korea, which will then be reciprocated with economic support and other incentives.
In the first televised debate among the four leading presidential candidates held on February 3, Yoon revealed that his diplomatic policies will be centered on restoring ties with the U.S. and Japan, which he argues have deteriorated under the Moon administration, primarily due to its rejection of the Japan-South Korean 2015 bilateral agreement concerning the “comfort women” issue. He has called for resuming so-called “shuttle diplomacy” with Japan, with the two countries’ leaders making reciprocal visits to each country, a practice that has been halted since 2011. While Yoon said that humanitarian issues in North Korea should not be neglected, he has not offered a detailed, forward-looking plan for the North Korean people and North Korean refugees. Lee has criticized Yoon for suggesting a preemptive strike against North Korea, stating that the remark will heighten tensions between South and North Korea. Lee also strongly opposed Yoon’s remarks about the possibility of canceling a symbolic inter-Korean military agreement, warning that the idea itself poses a serious threat to national security. Leif-Eric Easley, Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha Womans University, commented that “The PPP candidate will likely emphasize strengthening the U.S. alliance, be less muted about the Kim regime’s human rights abuses, and be more vocal about China’s role in North Korean sanctions violations.”
Voters who are interested in North Korea policy have two main choices: Lee Jae-myung, whose policy is not much different from that of the Moon administration, or Yoon Seok-yeol, whose slogan is clear but lacks specifics. During the presidential campaign, policy issues have so far been overshadowed by bizarre scandals and petty controversies, ranging from serious corruption allegations surrounding a housing development project to a self-professed acupuncturist who claimed to heal nerve damage. Arirang-Meari, a North Korean propaganda website, mocked the South Korean presidential candidates by naming Lee “perfectly rotten alcohol” and Yoon “unripe alcohol.” There are still many undecided voters who believe that both leading candidates are hypocritical or incompetent, saying that “it is a sad reality that we have to choose the lesser evil.”
South and North Korea marching in under a united flag at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony and Crash Landing on You, a popular South Korean television series about an implausible love story between a South Korean heiress and North Korean army captain, were not enough to convince South Korean citizens that the North is willing to give up its nuclear weapons or dismantle its prison camps. It is impossible to reach a compromise and achieve denuclearization as long as Kim Jong-un refuses to discuss his regime’s bleak human rights record, which is arguably a simpler problem to address than his nuclear weapons. Amnesty International condemned South Korea’s presidential candidates for failing to be attentive to human rights in North Korea: “Rather, the South Korean government has not spoken out about North Korea’s human rights issues. The attitude of the South Korean government in engaging with North Korea contradicts the recent international trend of putting the agenda for human rights as a top priority.” Even though North Korean human rights may not be a key topic in the South Korean election, the two candidates have different views over the issue of human rights violations in North Korea. The outcome of the 2022 election could change the lives of North Koreans as well as that of escapees who have resettled in South Korea.
Jungeun Lee is a freshman at Hanyang University, pursuing a major in chemistry. After witnessing North Korea's hardships and as a young Korean interested in science, she believes that science education will play a critical role in the country's reconstruction and development.
 Available at http://poll-mbc.co.kr/.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.