March 24, 2021

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

By Jason Bartlett and Olivia Grotenhuis

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.

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.

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.

Read the full article from The National Interest.

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