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The End of Sunshine?

[Update 6/20: As predicted, the North Koreans aren’t taking this well.]

“We have the right to speak.”

— North Korean government official, talking about South Korean politics

Has international pressure has finally forced South Korea to abandon years of official apathy about the phobocracy that is North Korea? Finally, South Korea declares, it will ask the North to treat the lives of its people with a modicum of respect.

South Korea will begin to take an increasingly proactive approach towards discussing concerns about human rights abuses in North Korea, a subject that until now has been taboo under Seoul’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with Pyongyang.

Ban Ki-moon, South Korea’s foreign minister, is set to address the issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on Monday.

The Chosun Ilbo now has the story:

“South Korea fully shares the concerns of the international community” over North Korea’s human rights issues, Ban said in a keynote address. He said Seoul expressed these concerns to the North in inter-Korean ministerial meetings. “We urge North Korea to enter into dialogue about human rights with the international community, which could lead to technical and systematic cooperation with the country,” he said.

This leads to a series of questions. First, how much of a change is this? Second, why the apparent shift? Third, does this mean the end of Sunshine?

I. How Big a Change?

To hear the South Korean government describe it, it’s either a very small change or none at all:

“The government has made progress in its position on the issue by taking issue with North Korea’s human rights record at a global event,” a government official said. South Korea has been absent or abstained since 2003 whenever the UN adopted resolutions on North Korea’s human rights violations.

Do specify on “progress” and “taking issue,” please. If you’ve watched the issue carefully enough, you might guess that this rather obscure meeting in Norway was the “global event” to which he refers … or not. As for “taking issue,” the remarks either went unreported, barely reported, or were merely slurred out over Tuborg boilermakers at 2 a.m. This is really just one degree removed from “quiet diplomacy,” which really boils down to “trust me.” You know, like Han Man Taek did.

The FT adds this quote:

“Before it was not the right time to burn bridges by raising human issues, but now it is time to take a more outspoken approach,” said a senior government official. “The bilateral economic relationship is now robust and inter-Korean relations are evolving, so they can sustain raising the human rights issue.

Are the South Koreans downplaying or is the change really insignificant? I vote for “both,” although I don’t deny either that the shift could have modest significance, or that this weakened government could quickly lose control of it.

I obviously view any policy coming from the “pearls for a pig” gang with some skepticism. I will stop short of actually suggesting that Ban, who desperately wants to be the next U.N. General Secretary, advocated this move to check his human rights block and win the votes of nations that found South Korea’s multiple U.N. abstentions and non-votes hard to explain. Don’t expect any forthright words. The modern-day comfort women in the bothels of Dalian and their homeless street children should expect little. In the depths of their souls, it is youthful anti-anti-Communism that unites those who rule the ruling party. They do not mean to surrender, but to withdraw from a position they could no longer defend to one they can.

Will they succeed? Do not underestimate the polish of some of South Korea’s diplomats. Fortunately, Korea’s best diplomats are not in its top positions. It’s also an election year in South Korea, where politicians are exceptionally sensitive to signs of weakness, and to the danger of being left behind by sudden shifts of public opinion. If the emboldened opposition sees this as a sign of weakness, it could escate its rhetoric to match recent North Korean attacks on them. The real sign to watch for would be election-year attacks of conscience from within the Uri or Democratic Labor parties. Once that happens, a modest readjustment of the lines could become a rout. Remember that just four years ago, the ground that this government cannot defend today was the moral high ground. Once surrendered, it will not easily be retaken.

II. Why The Change?

Self-congratulation is premature, but it’s clear that South Korea is being forced to fall back under withering pressure from the United States, from within South Korea itself, and from Japan and Europe. In short, it’s being forced to choose between good relations with North Korea and good relations with everyone else. It wants to cover for North Korea, but it can’t do that unless its own position has at least minimal credibility abroad.

U.S. pressure intensified dramatically during North Korea Freedom Week, the last week of April. Despite thin attendance at a Capitol Hill rally, U.S. Special Envoy Jay Lefkowitz made strong statements about Kaesong and food aid both there and before the House of Representatives. Those statements, buffered by strong statements from members of Congress in both parties, the support of NGO’s, and a presidential meeting with several North Korean refugees, created an unbridgeable gap in the U.S. and Korean positions.

Initially, that realization triggered a bout of Tourette’s in South Korea’s Unifiction Minister Lee Jong-Seok. In the end, however, no one was under the illusion that Lee’s tantrum would win friends or influence people. By giving the press and bloggers such exquisite material, Lee guaranteed that U.S.-Korean differences would damage bilateral relations, his own position, and his party as much as possible. By early May, it was possible to see the first signs of a South Korean retreat on the issue. Lee had managed to piss off absolutely everyone, but could not protect the policies on which he had staked his career.

[For a truly bleak view of what Sunshine has done to the U.S.-Korean alliance, look at this new Newsweek piece by B.J. Lee. Much of it is old news, but I think Lee gets it right.]

Lee’s statements had more effect because they came within the broader context of the already dismal state of the U.S.-Korean alliance. That alliance had just been shaken by a new round of violent (and this time, unpopular) anti-American protests. More recently, the U.S. has threatened to withdraw the air component that gives the Eighth Army its air cover and the USFK most of its combat power.

On May 31st, the leftist Uri party took the single worst local-election beating ever suffered by a South Korean ruling party, losing 15 out of 16 major races. If you’re keeping score, Uri’s current approval is 15.1 percent (which is just half a point above one-third of Bush’s, for all his troubles).

It would be overstating the case to say that human rights for North Koreans was an issue of real significance — it wasn’t — yet the election produced several important changes that will affect how the issue plays in 2007. First, Kim Moon-Soo, a charismatic and shrewd former union leader and political prisoner was elected as governor of Kyonggi-Province, which surrounds Seoul and borders North Korea. No single politician has been more steadfast in standing for the rights of the North Korean people than Kim. Kim replaced Sohn Hak-Kyu, a member of the same party who advocated nearly unconditional trade with the North. Sohn left to pursue a presidential run, but now polls in sub-single digits. Most joyous of all, however, was the ignominious fall of uber-appeaser Chung Dong-Young. After the shellacking of May 31st, Chung was forced to resign his hard-won post as leader of the ruling Uri party. Chung had hoped to use that position to promote his own presidential ambitions. Those ambitions now show no pulse.

On the activist front, small but well publicized LiNK protests received good media attention, a South Korean movement for human rights in the North showed signs of sprouting among students and (now) church groups. The conservative opposition is ascendant, for now, and the emerging political fad to watch is the New Right. The New Right may yet become the true voice of liberal democracy in Korea, but only if it can protect its endangered brand image from confucio-evangelical conservatives whose views are more Old Right than new.

These signs and some polling data (three links) suggest that a shift in South Korean public opinion could be in the making. This South Korean government was elected by voters who wanted a government that would restore their pride. Instead, South Korea has been shamed as the United States got ahead of South Korea on the protection of North Korean refugees. The “neocon conspiracy” defense is worn out. There is a growing perception in Korea and abroad that Sunshine has been tried, and has failed. That perception now crosses every sane quarter of the U.S., European, and Japanse political spectrum. Even North Korean refugees are now choosing life in the United States to that in the South.

Views on North Korea have been hardening in other countries. It’s not surprising that this should happen in Japan, which suspects the North of abducting dozens of its citizens. Europe has also become more active; just last Thursday, and also as a result of April’s activism, the EU passed a strong resolution condemning the North’s human rights record. Do not dismiss this; as Freedom House’s Jae Ku pointed out in an OFK interview, European criticism is harder for South Koreans to dismiss than American criticism. In another OFK interview, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute made a similar observation. Europe’s growing interest in this issue may well have brought us to a tipping point.

My supposition is South Korea has added up these facts and found its former positions indefensible, particularly at a time when North Korea isn’t exactly showing the world its best face. South Korea will now seek to find middle ground with liberals in the U.S. Congress, in Europe, and at home. Politically, it’s a smart move for the South Koreans. It also was smart when Bill Clinton called it “triangulation.”

III. The End of Sunshine?

The closing question is whether South Korea can successfully navigate between rising criticism of the status quo and North Korea’s insistence on preserving it. How much South Korean “interference” in the North’s internal affairs is compatible with Sunshine?

Remember — South Korea claims that inter-Korean relations have reached a level of maturity at which the North can handle criticism over, say, systematically starving a few million of its citizens to death. It is appropriate that we peer back into, say, last week to assess that level of maturity, beginning with how much respect the North has shown to the South Korean political system, as expressed in the votes of its people:

Before traveling here for the four-day party, Ahn Kyong-ho had warned South Koreans that returning the conservative Grand National Party to power would sour inter-Korean relations and could lead to the “fire of war.”

Seoul in essence told their guests to shut up about such South Korean domestic matters while they were here, and they generally complied. But just before getting on their airplane, the North Korean delegation issued a statement that read in part, “Expressing our position on South Korea’s internal affairs is our job, is related to inter-Korea relations and therefore cannot be an intervention in domestic affairs.”

The statement continued, “Our concerns and warnings about the Grand National Party and some South Korean media are just. We have the right to speak.”

At least until your plane lands, Mr. Ahn.

There are other examples if you want more, but let’s just say I don’t share South Korea’s confidence that the North can take it. Not that I’ve ever been a fan of relativistic non-interference. I believe in objective political standards, specifically, the idea that a democratic system of government is superior to and ought to supplant one that puts no inherent value on the lives of the overwhelming majority of its people. If South Korea’s leaders even tacitly agree — and North Korea’s leaders clearly do not and never will — then there’s only so far inter-Korean relations can improve before they hit such insurmountable obstacles as freedom of conscience, unalienable rights, and the consent of the governed.

That means that South Korea when North Korea throws its hissy, it will have a big decision to make. I’m betting that Roh folds like a cheap suit. North Korea won’t put up with Uri talking about human rights, and if South Korea talks anyway, the end of Sunshine is at hand.

That, or North Korea tests a missile.

[Thanks to a reader for forwarding the FT story].