Why Moon is criticized for lowering human rights banner

SEOUL — People crossing the border without permission are shot to death, a city near the border is locked down and its residents have to abide by a curfew. This is the current situation in North Korea, tightening control as a novel coronavirus measure, according to how a South Korean human rights activist describes it.

Unlike in Myanmar or Hong Kong, the media has limited opportunities to report on the actual situation in the isolated nation of North Korea, but Pyongyang’s human rights violations are serious.

Despite all this, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has remained silent about this issue.

“If we raise the issue of human rights, North Korea will regard it as a hostile policy and will not accept dialogue or humanitarian aid,” said a former member of Moon’s brain trust. “We have no choice but to lead North Korea toward a reform and opening up policy through a long-term strategy.”

I wonder if Seoul’s policy is truly correct.

In December last year, the Moon administration forcibly passed a bill into law to ban the launching of anti-North Korea leaflets across the military demarcation line.

An organization supporting defectors from North Korea has sent leaflets across the border by balloon that state the involvement of North Korean agents in the 2017 assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It has also released balloons that carried USB drives containing South Korean movies and TV shows.

In June last year, North Korean authorities, including Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, deputy director of the party, issued a statement urging South Korea to pass the bill into law banning such leaflets.

For this reason, the law to ban leaflets of this kind has been ridiculed as a law commanded by Kim Yo Jong and perceived as excessive favoritism toward North Korea.

With Seoul abandoning the encouragement of reform from the ground up — a policy of having outside information flow into North Korean society — South Korea’s image as a “bulwark of liberty” at the front line of the Cold War structure has been severely damaged.

The Moon administration has kept a low profile as it waits for the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue, but Pyongyang continues to ignore it.

If North Korea thinks it does not need to sit at a table to deal with South Korea, which is too willing to agree with Pyongyang over a single statement, the Moon administration’s actions toward the North have been counterproductive.

There are ways for Seoul to put pressure on Pyongyang, such as by using the North Korean Human Rights Act that allows for financial outlays to organizations working on human rights issues in the North.

The law was established five years ago under the conservative administration of then President Park Geun-hye, but the leftist Moon administration has not properly implemented it.

It is questionable whether the law can continue to be a beacon for North Korean defectors who risk their lives to cross the border between China and North Korea, under the fear of human trafficking and deportation, seeking a land of freedom.

The international community has voiced concerns over South Korea’s policy against the North.

In March, U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana recommended that human rights issues be addressed in negotiations with North Korea.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited South Korea, advised Seoul that it must stand up to the North Korean dictatorship.

When Moon was a lawyer, he supported the labor movement. Even after entering politics, he has been involved in helping the socially vulnerable. If he says that North Korea is the sole exception, then criticizing him for not flying the flag for human rights is surely warranted.