How South Korea’s Human Rights Lawyer President Sold Out Human Rights

By Jennie Oh

By Jennie Oh

Staff Writer


South Korean President Moon Jae-in (Picture Credit: Republic of Korea)

Raising a hand to the cheering crowd, South Korean President Moon Jae-in joined North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at the massive May Day Stadium at the Arirang Mass Games, a gymnastic and artistic festival held annually in Pyongyang. Swirling in kaleidoscopes of color, tens of thousands of performers welcomed the president from the South. As Moon spoke to them, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. It was September 2018, just months after his first meeting with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone and the US-North Korea summit in Singapore. Praised by the media as another historic breakthrough, Moon’s engagement policy was seen as a success, and there was even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize.


North Korean defector Doohyun Kim saw the footage in a different light. Beneath the garish lights and decor, the perfectly synchronized movements, and the rows of wide, identical smiles, he could almost smell the blood, sweat, and tears the 150,000 North Koreans in the stadium must have shed to rehearse the performance.


“These rehearsals can take around 12 hours without stop,” he said. “There’s no time to rest or sit down even for five minutes. You cannot breathe because of the smell of pee. People don’t have time to go to the restroom. So they pee where they are, anywhere. But South Korean politicians went to the event and praised the Games without thinking about the human rights violations of thousands that took place.”


Such concerns surrounding the Arirang Games, particularly regarding child abuse, have been well-documented and raised by international observers and the media, something Moon must know better than anyone. “He was a human rights lawyer. But he didn’t talk about it,” said Doohyun, who is working as a social media associate for the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). “He did nothing about human rights. I am so disappointed.”

Child performers at Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang in 2012 (Picture Credit: Jen Morgan)

Before entering politics in 2002 as a top aide to the late former President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon worked at a legal practice in Busan, defending pro-democracy and labor rights activists in the South. He’d turned down tempting offers of high-flying corporate positions to stand up for the people, according to his 2011 autobiography. His ultimate dream was to reprise his role as human rights lawyer, offering pro-bono legal services in a unified Korea.


When Moon became president in 2017, following the historic impeachment of Park Geun-hye over a power-abuse and bribery scandal, there were hopes that he would herald a new chapter of democracy. As he vowed to represent all South Koreans and build an inclusive nation, Moon’s campaign pledges also reached across the border. He urged engagement with Pyongyang, and was the only presidential candidate promising to strive to advance human rights in North Korea.


He’ll be breaking that promise in a couple weeks’ time when he leaves the Blue House. His tireless bid for engagement with Pyongyang has emphasized inter-Korean peace and cooperation, and denuclearisation talks with Washington. However, the former human rights lawyer has, ironically, been largely silent on North Korea’s human rights violations. Instead, Moon has spent his tenure gushing over Kim Jong-un, one of the world’s worst dictators. In a 2018 BBC interview, Moon enthused about Kim’s “respect for his elders that exemplified his humble leadership” – a peculiar way to describe an autocrat known to have executed his own uncle and assassinated his older half-brother and whose cult of personality brainwashes his people into believing he’s a god. When asked by the BBC journalist whether he, as a former human rights lawyer, was comfortable shaking the hand of the dictator, he dodged the question. He paused briefly before saying that pressure on the North would not be effective. Cooperation between the two Koreas, and between the North and the international community would be more realistic in advancing human rights, he said.

Trump, Kim, and Moon in the Demilitarized Zone in June 2019

Keen to make progress on inter-Korean projects that would build his political legacy as the peace negotiator, Moon continued to tread carefully, sweeping the issue of human rights under the carpet. Almost everything else, from cooperation on forests and building railroads to holding cultural concerts and forming joint Olympic teams were extensively discussed. The civil rights, safety, and well-being of North Koreans didn’t get a mention during the three rounds of summits held between the Korean leaders, and the subsequent ministerial and working-level talks between government officials.


Human Rights Watch (HRW) Deputy Director Phil Robertson described this as a “very, very shortsighted approach” that did “disservice to the North Korean people.” Already one of the most oppressed people in the world, subject to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and forced labor tantamount to slavery, North Koreans have seen their human rights situation worsen over the past decade of Kim’s rule. HRW’s recent reports shows North Koreans are now suffering even worse human rights abuses than ever before as Kim’s regime has used COVID-19 restrictions to further oppress the population. In recent months, Pyongyang has doubled down on measures to curb the spread of information and “anti-socialist” culture. It has cracked-down on those caught consuming foreign media; under a new law, those found speaking or singing in the “South Korean style” could serve up to two years of hard labor.

UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reporting its findings in March 2014. It found evidence of gross, widespread, and systemic human rights violations. (Picture Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva/ Eric Bridiers)

Moon probably avoided mentioning human rights out of fear that doing so would push the North away, but, if so, he seriously misunderstood the situation. He should have just “let them walk away,” Robertson said. “They’ll be back. They have things that they want as well. The fundamental failure of the Moon Jae-in approach is that he thought if they only talked about the things that the North Korean regime wants, then they would agree, and he [Moon] would get his legacy as the great peace builder of the Korean Peninsula. In fact, he got nothing and also he’s been treated with contempt by the leaders in Pyongyang.”

Moon should have just “let them walk away. They’ll be back. They have things that they want as well.”

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK (the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea), a US-based NGO dedicated to promoting human rights in North Korea, said that while he understands the political sensitivities, he would like to see Seoul “show more leadership on human rights…and work in accordance with other like-minded countries in the international community.”


One such measure includes the appointment of a special envoy on North Korean human rights. Under the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016, which created official government channels to monitor, investigate, and advance human rights in the North, the Moon administration should have appointed someone to the position by now, but the position has been vacant for the last five years. That same law also provided for the creation of a new human rights foundation to support NGOs and activities to help promote the rights of North Koreans. However, the foundation has yet to be launched and, according to Amanda Mortwed Oh, director of international advocacy and development at HRNK, the government has reduced its support for civic groups and defectors’ organizations in the South which assist escapees from the North. This is likely one of the reasons why the number of defectors to the South has dropped from 1,416 in 2016 to 63 in 2021, the lowest it’s ever been.


Unfortunately, the Moon administration’s shortcomings on human rights have gone beyond simple neglect – oftentimes, it has even actively worked to obstruct the work of these human rights organizations.


In 2003, Yoon Yeo-sang, a well-respected human rights activist, established the nonpartisan NKDB (the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights). For the past 14 years, the NKDB had a contract with the Ministry of Unification (the South Korean ministry tasked with promoting a prospective democratic unification of the two Koreas, as well as supporting North Korean defectors) granting it exclusive access to defectors. This has enabled it to issue white papers annually without fail detailing the human rights situation in North Korea. With over 130,000 records in its database, the NKDB has played a vital role in keeping tabs on the status of human rights in the North, pursuing justice for violations, and providing support for victims. But last year, the organization said in a press release that it could not publish a white paper for 2021, as the Moon administration had terminated their contract and revoked access to the defectors.


Robertson said that Moon should have worked to “extend the civil liberties of the South” and push for an open discussion. Instead, he’s done the exact opposite – Moon’s administration has curtailed human rights in the South to appease the dictatorship in the North.

Moon’s administration has curtailed human rights in the South to appease the dictatorship in the North.

Two years ago, Chanyang Ju, a North Korean defector, was busy crafting what she calls “manna missiles,” aimed at her native North Korea.


“It was all very scientific,” she said. “We timed the balloons to explode and release the flyers over Pyongyang. About a million of leaflets flurrying through the air. It was executed beautifully. Any Pyongyang citizen would have been able to just pick one off the street. That’s how many were sent.”


Information about the outside world was what led Ju and her family to plan their own escape from North Korea. Determined to lead others into freedom, she’s taken up graduate studies in communications and joined an NGO that aims to spread vital information to the highly-censored North. The leaflets carried information about South Korea’s economic development over the decades, and decried the abuses made by the Kim Dynasty. They were dropped along with supply kits, US dollar bills (which are reportedly in wide use due to the low value of the North Korean won), and packets of rice. It was “our own kind of missile,” Ju said, feeding the people with the truth.

Chanyang Ju speaking of her experiences in North Korea at the Asia Liberty Forum in 2014

Such truth bombshells were not received well by the Kims. When a group led by another defector, Park Sang-hak, sent over millions of leaflets last year, North Korea’s state-run media quoted a furious Kim Yo-jong, the powerful younger sister of the regime leader, who slammed Seoul for its inability to prevent the “human trash” from sending the leaflets.


Seoul once again bowed to pressure. The police commissioner ordered a “thorough” crackdown on these activities. The Moon administration revised the Inter-Korean Relations Development Act in 2020 to prosecute people in South Korea for sending anti-North materials across the border – anyone caught trying to do so can face up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won (roughly $27,400). Alarmed by these developments, international observers, including the UN’s Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, have expressed concern and urged Seoul to rescind the law, but to no avail.


Since the law came into force, Ju has not been able to launch any more balloons. In fact, Ju said even getting near the border with North Korea would be difficult. “When we drive anywhere remotely near Paju (a city in South Korea near its border with the North), cars emerge out of nowhere and start tailing us,” she said.


The situation is full of tragic irony. Not only does Moon’s government refuse to criticize Kim’s crackdown on human rights in the North, in order to placate him, he’s started his own crackdown on human rights in the South.

Kim and Moon at the inter-Korean summit in April 2018 (Picture Credit: Cheongwadae / Blue House)

Discouraging defectors from speaking out is particularly concerning, said Robert R. King, former special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the US State Department, as they are “among the most critical of the Kim regime and the most credible when they speak out.”


Worst of all was the Moon administration’s forced repatriation of two North Korean defectors who were accused of murder in 2019. It was a “death sentence,” according to Scarlatoiu, who said the move sent a signal to other North Korean escapees that South Korea “no longer provides a safe haven for them.”


“I cried and cried for days when I heard about the repatriation because we all knew what would happen to them,” said Ju. “I was scared, angry, and I shouted and called for change. But the situation hasn’t improved, and the freedom we’ve found in the South is slipping through our fingers.”

Kim and Moon at the inter-Korean summit in April 2018 (Picture Credit: Cheongwadae / Blue House)

As Moon Jae-in wraps up his time in office before the March presidential election, he continues to push for “peace on the Peninsula” whilst undermining the human rights of the most vulnerable Koreans.


Upon his election victory in 2017, Moon was asked to share one thing he could never forgive. “A person in power and of capacity…that neglects the plight of the weak,” was his answer.


Five years later, can Moon forgive himself?