The South Korean government has announced a program to strengthen cultural ties with Saudi Arabia, one of the most notorious human rights abusing states in the world. This in itself isn’t a problem; the freedom for citizens to engage in cultural and economic exchanges is never a bad thing. The problem is that it is entirely inconsistent with South Korea’s adherence to the U.S. policy of closing off ties with North Korea, ostensibly due in part to North Korea’s human rights violations. Indeed the same people who condemn Pyongyang and disdain of any economic interaction are likely front-line supporters of economic and cultural exchange with the Saudi kingdom.
President Park Geun-hye herself stated before the presidential elections last year that South Korea should adopt a human rights bill to improve conditions in the North all the while demanding North Korea reform before meaningful negotiations of peace can take place. In other words, ties with Saudi Arabia are a good thing despite their bad behaviour, while ties with North Korea are bad because of their bad behaviour.
This indicates a reality that many countries who bear the brunt of U.S. criticism for human rights abuse are well aware of — that the concept of human rights is really nothing more than a tool in the game of power politics for Washington elites and the elites of their ally states.
Nuclear weapons are another example. The South Korean government has a strong relationship with Israel. This is in spite of Israel’s substantial clandestine nuclear weapons arsenal. Israel is also not a member of the Nuclear Non-Profliferation Treaty (that so many condemn North Korea for leaving in 2003). Israel also has an abhorred human rights record. Park maintains the U.S. policy that North Korea must first denuclearize before any meaningful peace negotiations can continue on the peninsula, while her government seeks weapons deals with a state that runs the worlds biggest open air prison in the Gaza Strip, subjugating innocent people merely because they are Palestinian.
The South Korean government shouldn’t think they can change Saudi Arabia or Israel. This is not only because they clearly have no influence in these countries, but also because reform is for the people of these countries to undertake. It is also increasingly obvious that South Korea has very little influence in North Korea and it makes no sense to pursue a strategy of preconditions — nuclear and human rights reforms — before serious peace discussions.