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[Op-Ed] Special Envoy for N. Korean Human Rights

Posted November. 28, 2009 01:23,   


In September last year, the U.S. Congress extended the North Korean Human Rights Act to 2012 and created the position of special envoy for North Korean human rights. Under the act, U.S. President Barak Obama appointed in September this year Robert King, a former member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, to the envoy post, which had been vacant for nine months. His appointment received Senate approval Friday last week. Unlike his predecessor Jay Lefkowitz, King said at his Senate confirmation hearing that he will urge the Chinese government to protect North Korean refugees.

South Korea also set up a special envoy for human rights in 2001, but little has been done about North Korean human rights under the two previous governments. The envoy is an ambassador-at-large who receives no pay under the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry, but gets diplomat status. In addition, the government pays all expenses for the envoy’s official overseas trips and Korean overseas mission provides all assistance. Since President Lee Myung-bak appointed as the envoy Je Sung-ho, a law professor at ChungAng University in Seoul, Je has aggressively brought up human rights abuses by the North. So much so that the North has called him a “traitor.”

The Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee of the National Assembly passed a bill on appointment of a special envoy for North Korean human rights and a government briefing to the National Assembly on the North’s human rights status and ways to improve it. The passage of the bill would have been impossible under the two previous liberal governments, which said a North Korean human rights act and the special envoy would not significantly improve the North’s human rights. For the same reason, the main opposition Democratic Party is opposing the bill by boycotting a subcommittee on bill deliberation.

The appointment of a special envoy for North Korean human rights, however, will give momentum to international efforts to enhance human rights in North Korea. The U.N. made it clear Thursday last week that improving human rights in the North is an urgent task for all humanity. Left-leaning civic organizations say such moves will fuel inter-Korean distrust, but should not turn a blind eye to the grave violations of human rights by Pyongyang.

Editorial Writer Park Sung-won (swpark@donga.com)