By Yeonmi Park and Thor Halvorssen
South Koreans elected a new president Tuesday: Moon Jae-in of the opposition Minjoo party, who supports engagement and trade with North Korea’s Kim regime. His supporters celebrate him as the “peace” candidate, but Mr. Moon’s policies represent little more than accommodation of an evil regime that enslaves its own people.
Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship deprives its citizens of food, medical care and electricity; starves and works them to death in labor camps; and sentences them to public executions for crimes as benign as listening to foreign music. The United Nations 2014 Commission of Inquiry detailed such “unspeakable atrocities” as complete denial of free thought and belief; state-sponsored trafficking and sexual violence; and gulags akin to Holocaust concentration camps. The U.N. recommended trying the North Korean government for crimes against humanity.
Mr. Moon has no apparent plans to challenge or even expose this grim reality. He promises to focus instead on humanitarian aid and commerce—all of which is controlled and manipulated by the Pyongyang regime. He and his advisors have a record of hostility to any efforts to promote human rights in North Korea.
Former President Park Geun-hye took a fiercely oppositional stance toward the Kim regime. Last year her government passed legislation to promote human rights in North Korea after 10 years of delay, but this was too little too late. Seoul plans to set up a “museum” dedicated to North Korean human rights—by 2019. In the meantime the North Korean regime will continue to jail, torture and kill hundreds of thousands of people.
To reverse Ms. Park’s approach, Mr. Moon wants to revive the “Sunshine Policy” of cooperating with North Korea as Seoul did from 1998 to 2008. Former President Kim Dae-jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for using “warmth and friendliness” to bring the two Koreas together.
But behind the facade of peace North Korea’s Kim Jong Il starved millions and developed nuclear weapons. In 2003, it was revealed that Kim Dae-jung’s administration and associated companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars to Kim Jong Il to facilitate the peace process, giving a perpetrator of crimes against humanity a financial lifeline during a time of weakness.
Mr. Moon, who was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun a decade ago, is likely to ignore or censor anti-North sentiment at home. A coalition of 3,000 North Korean defectors even promised to leave South Korea if he is elected, saying that they had been “oppressed and discriminated against” under the Roh administration. According to North Korean defector Kang Chol Hwan, “it is very unlikely that Mr. Moon will ever support the work of defector organizations trying to promote human rights in North Korea.” What little government assistance he and other defectors like Ji Seong Ho and Park Sang Hak received in recent years could dwindle to nothing. The Moon administration may even try to silence defectors to avoid a public discussion of the human-rights catastrophe taking place just 35 miles north of Seoul, as Seoul did during the Sunshine years.
This is especially tragic because the Kim tyranny has a key vulnerability: information. According to researcher Jieun Baek, the vast majority of North Koreans now have access to media, knowledge and technology from the outside world. This access is prompting an unseen revolution within the Hermit Kingdom. Through smuggled flash drives, DVD players and smartphones, more North Koreans than ever before have started to question the regime’s propaganda.
Defectors often say that foreign media led them to question their rulers for the first time. For one of the authors of this article, the movie “Titanic” was life-changing. For Ji Seong Ho it was “The Avengers.” For Hyeonseo Lee it was South Korean music and soap operas.
Cracks are starting to show in the form of public discontent, military fatigue and cultural and economic transformation. Foreign media outlets would do well to focus on these changes. But most articles about North Korea focus on the regime’s parades, propaganda and military might. Few if any mention the changes within and the atrocities that take place every day. This indifference is why so many North Korean defectors now take it upon themselves to bring information in—and out of—their repressed homeland.
South Korea’s government should be helping them. For a tiny fraction of the cost of other major national programs, Seoul could send a million USB sticks packed with news and information into North Korea, opening up an enormous window to the outside world for brainwashed millions. The Human Rights Foundation plans to send more than 100,000 USB sticks filled with outside information into North Korea this year as part of its Flash Drives for Freedom program.
Yet the Moon administration will likely scrap such ideas in favor of seeking friendly relations with the North. Mr. Moon may say that he is doing what he can to ward off a potential war that could endanger South Koreans, but misguided policies of sunshine and engagement have already helped millions of North Koreans fall victim to the Kim tyranny.
The fate of the North Korean people depends in large part on the action—or inaction—of the South Korean government. So while we celebrate the South’s democracy, we despair at its lack of interest in the suffering in the North.
Ms. Park, a North Korean defector, is author of “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom” (Penguin). Mr. Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation.