S. Korean diplomat calls for humanitarian assistance to N. Korea

Posted on : 2021-02-26 16:40 KST Modified on : 2021-02-26 17:11 KST
The diplomat says human rights situation in North Korea must not block interest in the humanitarian situation in the North
Second Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong-moon delivers a keynote address at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which was held in Geneva, Switzerland, on Feb. 23. (provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Second Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong-moon delivers a keynote address at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which was held in Geneva, Switzerland, on Feb. 23. (provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The South Korean government expressed “deep interest and concerns about the human rights situation in North Korea” but cautioned that those concerns “must not block [the international community’s] interest in the humanitarian situation there.”

South Korean Second Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-moon made the remarks during his keynote address at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), held in Geneva, Switzerland, on Feb. 23.

“Advancing and protecting human rights have been some of the chief priorities of the Moon Jae-in administration. We have worked with the international community to bring about meaningful improvement in the human rights of people in North Korea,” Choi said.

Speeches in the session were presented in the form of prerecorded videos.

“The South Korean government expresses its concerns about a UN report estimating that more than 10 million North Koreans suffer from malnutrition. The humanitarian situation there could be worsened by factors such as economic sanctions, COVID-19 and natural disasters,” Choi said.

Choi promised that South Korea would “continue to work closely with humanitarian organizations and UN human rights mechanisms.”

In a press release on Feb. 25, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted Choi as saying, “We hope that North Korea will respond to our repeated requests for a solution to the issue of the divided families, which is one of the most urgent humanitarian and human rights issues.”

Choi also expressed the urgency of resolving the issue of conflict-related sexual violence. “The current and future generations need to learn an invaluable lesson from the painful experience of the survivors of the so-called ‘comfort women’ system during World War II. The tragedy of the comfort women should be approached as a universal human rights issue, and we must prevent the recurrence of such grave human rights violations in conflicts,” he emphasized.

In addition, Choi addressed the economic and social inequality and discrimination and hatred that COVID-19 has aggravated and expressed South Korea’s support for a fair approach to the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and medication.

Choi also voiced South Korea’s hope that more countries will take part in the Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health, which was launched in December at the suggestion of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and expressed Seoul’s deep concerns about recent developments in Myanmar.

While Choi addressed a range of issues, interest focused on his remarks about the comfort women and North Korean human rights, as is typical of the South Korean government’s keynote address at sessions of the UNHRC. That interest reflects the fact that Seoul’s position on these two issues varies with the party in power and the political situation.

In 2018, when peace on the Korean Peninsula was the catchphrase of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and in 2019, when North Korea and the US were still engaged in talks about peace and denuclearization, the South Korean representative expressed the hope that political progress would lead to the improvement of the human rights situation in North Korea.

But in 2017, when the South Korean government’s sanctions and policy of pressure against the North reached their peak, Seoul described the human rights situation in North Korea as a crime against humanity and called for the North to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

The South Korean government brings up the comfort women issue at nearly every session of the UNHRC. But it notably declined to mention the issue in 2016 and 2017, after reaching an agreement about the comfort women with Japan in December 2015.

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong didn’t attend this session of the UNHRC, and his absence has been criticized in some quarters as representing a concession to North Korea. The Foreign Ministry dismissed that interpretation, observing that the council need not be attended by the foreign minister and that speakers range from mid-level officials to vice ministers, ministers and even heads of state.

The Ministry explained that Choi had been chosen to attend the council “in light of various factors, including the busy schedule” of Chung, who only assumed his post on Feb. 9.

Chung’s predecessor there, Kang Kyung-wha, attended the council each year from 2018 to 2020. The previous foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, attended three of five council meetings held during his time in office, with the Ministry’s second vice minister and head of multilateral diplomacy each making one appearance.

While the Foreign Ministry is correct that the minister does not always attend sessions of the UNHRC, it’s also true that the council has been used as a forum for bilateral meetings between foreign ministers and other senior officials in major countries.

This time around, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a speech on Feb. 22, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Feb. 24.

By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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