South Koreans may be surprised to learn that over five thousand miles away in London, the Korean peninsula is a hotly debated issue. In the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament, where I am a serving MP, politicians from across the political spectrum regularly meet to discuss the trials and tribulations of the Kim Jong-un regime and the plight of the North Korean people.
In 2004, two of my colleagues, Lord Alton and Baroness Cox, visited North Korea. Their objective was to raise awareness in the UK parliament of the human rights, humanitarian, and security issues posed by the North Korean Government. Upon their return to London, they founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea (APPG) — a grouping of politicians from all parties that meet to discuss and debate North Korea.
Since the APPG’s formation, we have welcomed North Korean Government delegations, including the Speaker of the North Korean Assembly, Choe Thae-bok; we have debated North Korea in both Houses of the UK parliament; and, most importantly, we have provided North Korean refugees with the opportunity to speak about their experiences to UK politicians (the UK is home to the largest North Korean refugee population outside of South Korea).
In December 2015, I met with Kim Son Gyong, Director General of the European Department of North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our discussion, which is on pubic record, was cordial, but frank. I told Mr. Kim that UK parliamentarians asked for changes in the way that his government treated the North Korean people. I questioned his view that there were no human rights violations in his country. And I reminded him of the inevitable course of international justice that is outlined in the report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry.
An offer was also extended to his Government for assistance in the field of human rights — I await a reply.
This, in essence, is the role of a democratically elected politician. Like my colleagues on the National Assembly in South Korea, I was elected by the people, for the people. My job is not only to represent and promote local interests at the national level, it is also to promote universal interests at the international level.
The North Korean people have no recourse to justice or democracy. They have no viable political representatives. It therefore falls upon politicians, like myself, to advocate for their well-being and human rights.
As a serving MP with a passion for the North Korean people, I have followed the now decade-long legislative debate in the South Korean National Assembly on the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA) with interest.
The debate is of course nuanced, but many politicians in the UK — both liberal and conservative — had struggled to comprehend why the NKHRA had not passed into South Korean law.
In the UK, human rights were first set out in law in the Bill of Rights in the year 1689. In the three centuries that have passed since, there have certainly been struggles but human rights are now seen as being above politics. Indeed, they now form a global normative order: which is to say that human rights are universal and non-negotiable. They are the most basic and substantive component of modern humanity.
As such, and with profound respect for the views of my fellow South Korean politicians who oppose the NKHRA in its current form, I urge them to act immediately to improve human rights in North Korea through supporting the NKHRA legislation.
Discussing human rights issues with the North Korean Government and people should not be optional, nor should it be viewed as a political act. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated, the dignity and worth of all human beings passes through national borders. It is for those of us who enjoy freedom to champion it for those who do not.
Is the NKHRA, as the bill is presented in the National Assembly today, provocative or detrimental to peace and unification on the Korean peninsula? I would say it is not. North Korea’s actions — from the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010 to the border shelling in August 2015 that followed anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts — have certainly been provocative and detrimental to peace. But South Korea has a maturing democracy and has shown admirable restraint. It should not be held hostage by its northern neighbours.
The APPG has for many years urged the BBC — the UK’s public broadcaster — to transmit a Korean- language service to the North Korean people. Following years of consideration and NGO action, a BBC radio service for the North Korean people will soon become a reality. For the APPG, our support of this radio service was not a matter of politics. It was a way of ensuring that North Koreans were able to exercise their freedom to listen to impartial news and information.
In my view, the aim of the North Korean Government’s opposition to the NKHRA is clear: Pyongyang seeks to divide South Korean public opinion. If South Korea’s politicians and public stood united behind a NKHRA, Pyongyang understands that it would face its biggest challenge: a politically unified South Korea that is at one with ordinary North Korean citizens.
Will change in North Korea come through unrestrained flows of money or humanitarian aid? The evidence suggests it will not. Will reform come through tourism or cultural engagement? Again, all evidence says it will not. In reality, the small amounts of change in North Korea have emerged from the North Korean people themselves.
It is the duty of us all to support those who are working for positive change in North Korea. A NKHRA will not bring an end to the North Korean Government’s abuse of its population, but it will say ‘enough is enough’. Time is fast running out for the current North Korean regime. Now South Korea’s National Assembly is better prepared for change and is uniting behind the North Korean people today.
The above article was first published in Korean in the Chosun Ilbo.