South Korea's Engagement Policy

Revisiting a Human Rights Policy

Author: Jong-Yun Bae and Chung-in Moon


During the progressive decade of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments (1998–2007), South Korea actively pursued an engagement policy with North Korea that aimed to facilitate de facto unification by means of exchanges and cooperation, trust-building, and peaceful coexistence. But the engagement policy has been subject to harsh criticism for its silence over human rights conditions in North Korea. This article looks into the nature of conservative critiques of the engagement policy on the human rights front and elucidates how its proponents have responded. Attention is given to how the trade-off between peace and human rights, as well as that between basic human needs and human rights, constrained their open pursuit of a human rights campaign against North Korea. Also examined is their belief that democracy and human rights should not be imposed from the outside and that North Koreans should win them through struggle from within. For conservatives, hard-line pressures are of limited utility, and opening and reform, the introduction of market system, the expansion of civil society, and the advent of the middle class through the engagement policy are the best ways, albeit time consuming, to enhance human rights and democracy in the North. Finally, the authors critically assess recent debates on the North Korean Human Rights Act in the South Korea's National Assembly as a way of exploring the limits and promise of the engagement policy.

Regions: East Asia
Countries: Korea
Topics: Human Rights

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© 2002 ILO/Crozet M.