Dr. Lee Shin-wha, the ROK Ambassador for International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights, identifies the important stakeholders in the DPRK human rights problem and explains why these human rights issues have not been receiving adequate level of attention. Highlighting that humanitarian aid is essential for the survival of the ordinary North Koreans, Ambassador Lee urges the South Korean government to take a more proactive role in addressing the DPRK human rights issues in order to strengthen its position as a “Global Pivotal State.”


I. Call for protection of North Korean residents, defectors, and South Korean detainees


• Ambassador Lee categorizes the victims of North Korean human rights problem into three groups: North Korean residents, North Korean defectors, and South Korean POW.


• Right to food and right to information must be secured for those residing in North Korea. Defectors who face risk of forced repatriation must be protected. South Korean government should also prioritize the repatriation of ROK nationals abducted during and after the Korean War.


• Ambassador Lee highlights that compared to countries like Japan, which prioritizes repatriation of unreturned abductees as the core of its DPRK policy, “there has been a lack of government-level efforts in South Korea to address these issues.”


II. Media is uninterested and people of tired of North Korean human rights issues


• “Unless something very big happens in North Korea, the North Korean human rights issues is still sidelined,” says Ambassador Lee. The media is currently preoccupied with what is going on in Ukraine.


• “North Korean human rights issues as well as missile issues have been there for two to three decades, and yet nothing has changed.” This has brought about a “fatigue phenomenon.” Revitalizing interest and awareness toward this problem is a key task for the South Korean government and the international community.


III. South Korea’s quest to strengthen its position as a “Global Pivotal State”


• Ambassador Lee suggests the following actions that South Korean government should take in order to pursue its goal of establishing itself as a “Global Pivotal State”: (1) conduct value diplomacy, (2) cooperate with international organizations and like-minded countries, and (3) engage with neutral states or non-democratic countries.


• Addressing the DPRK human rights issues could be a “stepping stone to show the world that South Korea is committed to values, norms, freedom, and human rights.” Also, Ambassador Lee is working hard with the international community, particularly the United Nations, to galvanize international awareness and attention on North Korean human rights issues.”


IV. The role of humanitarian aid in conducting a constructive inter-Korean engagement


• “While previous progressive governments have highlighted the importance of humanitarian and economic assistance in order to improve their chance of engaging with the DPRK regime,” Ambassador Lee disagrees with this point of view.


• Ambassador Lee highlights that “humanitarian and economic assistance toward North Korea is important because those are the crucial means to improve the daily living conditions of the ordinary North Korean people.” In such context, she claims that finding ways to “improve transparency and engage directly with the ordinary North Koreans” is a key task for her and the South Korean government. ■


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Lee Shin-wha_is a Professor of Department of Political Science and International Relations at Korea University; Ambassador of International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights; and Member of Trilateral Commission. Her previous positions include Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Rwandan Independent Inquiry; Chair’s advisor of East Asian Vision Group (EAVG), Full-time visiting professor at Columbia University, Visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for International Studies, UN Secretary General’s Advisory Group Member of Peacebuilding Fund. Her numerous publications, including an edited volume UN, Indo-Pacific and Korean Peninsula (Routledge 2023), cover East Asian multilateral security and foreign policies, UN security roles, and human security.



Typeset by Jisoo Park, Research Associate
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