Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 1 (Spring 1994): Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era: Articles: The Republic of Korea's Role in the Emerging Debate

May 4, 1994

The human rights position of the ROK, a fledgling democracy and economic aid donor in the region, is gaining importance. While only a few years ago, Korea was alarming the international human rights community with egregious human rights violations toward its citizens, in the past year it has emerged in international fora as a solid advocate of universality. Although sympathetic to the view that the application of the International Bill of Rights needs to take into account the specific conditions of all nations, the Korean government maintains that it does not allow cultural circumstances to be an excuse for breaching internationally determined standards.

In a major foreign policy speech delivered at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, ROK foreign minister Han Sung-joo said: I am happy to report to you that human rights have finally come of age in Korea. I stand before you representing a nation and a people who can proudly say that truth, freedom, and democracy have at last triumphed in their country.... During our struggle, we found out that the fight for human rights is inherent to human nature. Human rights are something mankind is eventually bound to cherish and aspire to regardless of political or economic circumstances. Human rights are universal, indivisible, and interrelated. They cannot be altered according to circumstances. It is neither justifiable nor appropriate to deny some human rights in order to guarantee others.

At the Bangkok regional meeting and the Vienna Conference, during the debate in late 1993 over a commissioner for human rights, and in other international fora, Korea has continued to press this position despite the disfavor it elicits from some of its Asian neighbors. According to Jeong Woo Kil of the Research Institute for National Unification, "Seoul is more interested in letting it be known that it stands with the West than in promoting Eastern values."

Baek Sang Cho of the Korean Foreign Ministry explained to the seminar that Korea can now admit that American and NGO pressure was "very constructive" in breaking down the resistance of its former governments and "in making Korea more democratic." He said that from the Korean point of view, Burma and China must know that their claim to particularity cannot override universality, and that they should not persist with this argument "for the sake of defending their system."

Because Korea has so recently been "on the other side of the fence" as a targeted human rights violator, it likes to think of itself as well-suited to function as a mediator between East and West. This is a similar rationale to Japan's assertion of its global leadership on the environment, which was based on its history of coping with pollution problems at home. For the ROK, this perception is part of the reason it has chosen to remain vocal on human rights and to make them key components of its "New Diplomacy." As Korean president Kim Young Sam explained in a May 1993 speech in Seoul:

The New Diplomacy places emphasis on such universal values as democracy, liberty, welfare, and human rights. It is an active diplomacy based upon morality.

Another reason Korea is concerned about human rights is because of the dire human rights situation in North Korea. With an eye toward reunification of the Korean peninsula, explained Jeong Woo Kil of the Research Institute for National Unification, South Korea is deeply concerned about the human rights conditions in the North and wants to see to it that the socioculturalgaps between North and South are surmountable.

To add to its human rights credentials and responsibilities, in 1992 the ROK created the position of an ambassador-at-large for human rights, who was elected a member of the UN Human Rights Commission. The comparatively favorable report it received in the most recent U.S. State Department report on human rights has also improved its image.

*1* For example, Bilahari Kausikan, the doirector of the East Asian and Pacific Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, made this claim in "Asia's different standard," which appeared in Foreign Policy, no. 92, Fall 1993.
*2* "To Justify Flogging, Singapore Cites 'Chaos' on U.S. Streets," New York Times, April 13 1994, p. 2.
*3* It should be noted that neither the possession of handguns nor pornography is a human rights issue in a legal sense; they are constitutional issues. the point the speaker was making is that the values underlying these issues are changing in the United States, opening these subjects to debate.

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