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Human Rights Will Continue to Polarize Washington and Seoul on North Korea

America and South Korea share the same bed of problems with North Korea but have different dreams for the future. This piece was originally published by The National Interest.

A sign reading Imjingak also displays the distance to Gaesong, North Korea (22km) and Seoul, South Korea (53 km)
Prayer ribbons hang from a fence that divides North and South Korea in Im-jin-gak, Paju.

While the Biden administration’s first Indo-Pacific tour and successful military cost-sharing agreement with Seoul may have assuaged immediate concerns for heightened tensions between Washington and Seoul, President Joe Biden and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in are set to clash on how best to tackle the North Korea issue. In particular, Biden's review of U.S. policy on North Korea is set to include human rightsan issue that Moon believes will stymie efforts to engage with Pyongyang. Although both Biden and Moon advocate for inter-Korean peace, their definition of peace and how to achieve it couldn’t be more different. 

Dong-sang-i-mong, often translated into English as “same bed, different dreams,” is a Chinese proverb adopted into the Korean language to describe situations where two or more parties ostensibly act together but harbor vastly different objectives or strategies. While both Biden and Moon rally for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, a deepening dichotomy between Washington and Seoul on how to engage North Korea lies under the surface. During its current sanctions and foreign policy review process, the Biden administration has signaled its intent to adopt a hardline approach against Pyongyang’s human-rights abuses and military provocations. While campaigning in 2020, Biden criticized former President Donald Trump’s overtures to the Kim regime by equating his warm correspondences with Kim Jong-un as “embracing thugs,” suggesting a moratorium on similar forms of engagement. In contrast, Moon continues to advocate for North Korea’s adoption into the international community; for example, his appeal to Japan to allow Pyongyang to participate in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

South Korea declined to co-sponsor a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution denouncing widespread violations of human rights in North Korea for the third consecutive year this March.

While Moon welcomed America “back” following Biden’s inauguration, he is unlikely to embrace U.S. policy on North Korea with the same level of vigor. Despite his humble beginnings as a human rights lawyer and leader in the late 1980s pro-democracy movement in South Korea, Moon refrains from acknowledging North Korean human rights in official Blue House statements or public interactions with Pyongyang. Most recently, South Korea declined to co-sponsor a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNCHR) resolution denouncing widespread violations of human rights in North Korea for the third consecutive year this March. In an interview with The Hankyoreh, former advisor to Moon, Dr. Moon Chung-in, called on the Biden Administration to reconsider addressing human rights abuses with Pyongyang, arguing that “North Korea will reject dialogue.” However, both the White House and U.S. Congress are likely to persist.

In terms of incorporating the human-rights framework within North Korean policy, Seoul historically has always trailed behind Washington. For example, the U.S. Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004 with bipartisan support whereas South Korean progressives and conservatives failed to reach a consensus on its own North Korean Human Rights Law until 2016. However, the Moon administration and its constituents have gone to greater lengths to ensure that talks of human rights don’t impede current inter-Korean dialogue. The most recent example is the new amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act which criminalizes the practice of floating balloons with anti-regime leaflets, cultural items such as South Korean media, music, and movies, and currency into North Korea. Echoing the outcry from North Korean defector activists in Seoul, Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), a co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, released a statement calling for the State Department to “critically re-evaluate the Republic of Korea’s commitment to democratic values in its annual human rights report.”

While human rights non-governmental organizations...consider this amendment as sacrificing free speech in South Korea to appease North Korea, supporters of the ban claim that these leaflets threaten the daily lives of South Korean citizens living in Paju, a border city between North and South Korea.

While human rights non-governmental organizations and North Korean defector-turned South Korean politician, Thae Yong-ho, consider this amendment as sacrificing free speech in South Korea to appease North Korea, supporters of the ban claim that these leaflets threaten the daily lives of South Korean citizens living in Paju, a border city between North and South Korea. Park Jeung, a member of the National Assembly of South Korea in Paju B District, referred to international criticism against the ban as “detached from reality,” demonstrating the deepening polarization between Seoul and Washington over the importance of human rights in North Korea policy. Although this debate has divided Seoul prior to the Moon administration, the recent unprecedented interest from the international community will likely highlight Moon’s strained efforts to avoid talks of human rights with North Korea.

For the United States, not only is it improbable that Washington will sideline human-rights issues for a potential rapprochement opportunity with North Korea, but the U.S. government may adopt a more vocal role in challenging Seoul’s hyper-engagement policy with Pyongyang. For example, the recent controversy surrounding the South Korean government’s alleged plans to construct a nuclear power plant in North Korea through its inter-Korean energy cooperation framework signifies an urgent need for Washington to reevaluate its laissez-faire approach towards inter-Korean dialogue. Additionally, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification’s decision to suspend certain human rights non-governmental organizations access to Hanawon Centers will likely encourage increased criticism from abroad. Given the opaque nature of North Korea, these resettlement support centers for North Korean refugees provide an invaluable source of information for organizations attempting to collect and quantify human rights abuse-related data. This decision contradicts the Biden Administration’s pledge to include human rights and pro-democracy efforts within its general U.S. foreign policy, including its approach to North Korea. Yet as Moon strives to reach a major breakthrough with Pyongyang prior to finishing his final year in office, he is unlikely to change course on his North Korea strategy.

Whether or not the Biden administration decides to publicly oppose the anti-leaflet law set to come into effect on March 30, 2021, Washington and Seoul are set to clash over North Korea under Biden and Moon. As the international community becomes more aware of Seoul’s decision to parlay Pyongyang’s human rights abuses for a chance at sustained rapprochement, both the Blue House and White House will have to consider how much of a role North Korean human rights should play in U.S.-ROK dialogue.

This article originally appeared in The National Interest.


Jason Bartlett is a research assistant in the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He tweets at @jasonabartlett. Olivia Grotenhuis is a staff assistant intern at the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She tweets at @OliviaGrotenhu1

Follow the Korea Center on Twitter @Korea_Center or on Instagram at @wilsoncenterkorea.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Authors

Jason Bartlett

Research Assistant; Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security
Olivia Grotenhuis

Olivia Grotenhuis

Staff Assistant Intern

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more