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Former US Officials Chastise Seoul Over Treatment of N. Korean Rights Groups

In this photo provided by South Korea Presidential Blue House, South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the phone at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, July 28, 2020.
In this photo provided by South Korea Presidential Blue House, South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the phone at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, July 28, 2020.

Thirteen former U.S. officials from Republican and Democratic administrations Wednesday sent an open letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in accusing his government of "undermining North Korea's human rights movement.”

Describing themselves as “deeply troubled” by a government-led campaign “aimed at undermining the North Korea human rights movement by targeting all the major organizations that work to help rescue, educate, protect and/or improve the lives of North Koreans,” the ex-officials called on Moon to instead "promote human rights for North Koreans.”

On Tuesday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry began inspecting 25 defector-run NGOs, criticizing their failure to file necessary documentation, and announced a registration-compliance review of 64 others.

The massive probe coincides with Moon administration efforts to jump-start dialogue and economic projects with Pyongyang, which remains under strict international embargoes because of its nuclear weapons program.

The Unification Ministry recently canceled corporate licenses of two defector groups that were sending propaganda leaflets into the North. Without a license, the groups can’t apply for tax exemptions or hold fundraisers.

Moon under fire

Signatories of the open letter — including Richard Allen, national security adviser for Ronald Reagan, and Robert Joseph, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under George W. Bush — have served every U.S. president since Richard Nixon. They called the sweeping probe “a chilling form of intimidation, as they were all clearly targeted simply for their North Korea human rights work.”

“The tendency of this South Korean government led by President Moon to appease North Korea, really seems to have gotten out of control," signatory Christian Whiton, a State Department senior adviser for strategic communication during the Trump administration, told VOA Wednesday.

"You would expect the South Korean government to speak up for the human rights of North Koreans and protect North Koreans who make it to the South, and they seem to be doing the opposite," Whiton added. "They seem to be hurting North Koreans and those who help North Korean defectors in efforts to appease North Korea and get something out of Kim Jong Un and his government.”

Signatory Roberta Cohen, former deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights, told VOA: “It’s important for them to know that their actions in South Korea have consequences — that the friends of South Korea abroad believe they’ve gone too far.

"Here [in the U.S.], there is really a bipartisan view that this is a mistake,” she added.

Speaking with VOA on Thursday, former special envoy for North Korea human rights Robert King, who also signed the letter, said “there is a legitimate concern to make sure the funds are being spent well, but doing this office inspection immediately after other things that have taken place … the whole thing has a flavor of a witch hunt.”

South Korea’s priorities

A source close to Moon told VOA Wednesday that the "Unification Ministry’s office inspection is a regular procedure to guarantee transparent management of relevant organizations, and the ministry will continue communications with organizations as needed.”

The source spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe Seoul’s view on the issue.

The South Korean government has repeatedly denied its recent actions are in response to North Korea’s threats to damage inter-Korean ties. North Korea in June threatened to cut off ties with Seoul over the propaganda leaflets. It also blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Kaesong in an apparent show of anger.

King said: “I think the Moon Jae-in administration is getting very concerned that the time of his term of office is beginning to run out. They’re anxious to make an agreement to do something with the North. They’re willing to abandon the principles of human rights.”

South Korea is seeking measures to improve relations with the North, which turned sour after the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi collapsed in February 2019. The Unification Ministry is set to approve an inter-Korean barter trade of South Korea’s sugar for North Korea’s liquor, bypassing U.N. sanctions banning cash transfers to North Korea. Seoul also announced a plan last week to provide $10 million in food aid to North Korea through the World Food Program.

Hwanyong Kim contributed reporting from Seoul. Some information is from Reuters.