Human rights: beyond the dichotomy of Bosu versus Jinbo
President, Human Asia
Professor of Korea University GSIS
Ever since I got involved in human rights activism, people have been asking: "So, which side are you on? Are you Bosu or Jinbo?"
*Bosu: A term that denotes right-wing conservative party in South Korea
*Jinbo: Left-wing progressive
I find myself trying to clarify every single time, sometimes rather defensively, that human rights transcend the politicized concept of left or right-wing politics. Nevertheless, the alleged inquisitors somehow havemade up their mindsalready even before I answer their question, jumping to a conclusion that I am either left-wing liberal or hardcore right-wing reactionary.
Originally, I was interested in North Korean human rights. That was ten years ago when I first got my foot into the door of human rights activism. Through my association with Citizens¡¯ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, I became aware ofthe miserable situations of North Koreans, contemplating upon my duties and responsibilities as a scholar. Beyond all expectations however, my association with North Korean human rights activism brought me such label like pro-American hard-core Bosu, without fail.
I had hard time comprehending this. The notion of human rights as such, it should be beyond any type of politicization. So was there any rationale behind such branding that I was a right-wing conservative, only because I was interested in improving North Korean human rights?
After my appointment as the president of HUMAN ASIAon the other hand, the labeling has changed. Now, people regard me as, leftist Jinbo. Carving out the word, ¡®North Korea¡¯ from ¡®North Korean human rights activist¡¯ suddenly transformed me into left-wing Jinbo from right-wing Bosu.
Why? It is perhaps because of my very self-conscious distancing from the overly politicized term, ¡®North Korean Human Rights¡¯ so as to be liberated from the label, pro-American hard-core Bosu, focusing my endeavor mainly on human rights activism beyond politicization. This does not mean that my hope for human rights improvement in North Korea has dissipated, by any means.
In fact, the very founding principle of HUMAN ASIA had to do with the realization that merely addressing North Korean human rights did not improve the human rights situation in North Korea but perhaps what was crucially needed is to establish region-wide human rights protection mechanism. Plus, Korea is the only country in Asia that has simultaneously achieved both political and economic growth, thus necessitating more proactive role in improving human rights of Asia. This is also in keeping with realizing the roles civil society actors can play towards that goal. With Human Asia, I became more aware of such issues as migrant workers, refugees, trafficking, children and women—vulnerable human rights situations of Asia, where regional level human rights protection system is practically nonexistent.
My own human rights activism for Asia has begun as an extension of North Korean human rights activism, but why the abrupt transformation of labeling from ¡®conservative¡¯ to ¡®leftist¡¯ based upon the simple removal of the word North Korea?Perhaps this has to do with the fact that people tend to focus more on such terms as North Korea, migrant workers, refugees, the vulnerable, etc.—the terms frequently associated with human rights—than human rights per se.
People consider North Korean human rights activism to be conservative,because they think it disturbs the so-called "Sunshine Policy" promulgated by the progressive Jinbo, in support of American strategies to ultimately bring down North Korean regime. When ¡®North Korea¡¯ is attached to the term ¡®human rights¡¯, it results in ideological clash between Jinbo and Bosu. On the other hand, when human rights are discussed minus the term North Korea but plus other terminologies like migrant workers, refugees, etc., the focus is quicklyshifted to discussion on social minorities, which is typically on the polemical opposite of conservative principles in a free market economy, making the proponents of such rights left-wing Jinbo. Regrettably, activism for the vulnerable people without the protection of human rights gets entangled—and trapped—in debates that are highly politicized.
At this point, it might be worthwhile to remind ourselves of fundamentals of human rights. Human rightscan be understood as set of essential, inherent, and natural conditions endowed upon any human being, be it North Korean,South Korean, refugees and/or migrant workers. Every human being is entitled to human rights, as it means conditions needed for a person to lead a decent life. Political and ideological disputes are inevitable of course and human rights discourse is not free from such disputes.Historically, human rights have been entangled in ideological battles between liberals and communists. Many foreign policies on human rights have not been entirely impartial.
However, it is neither acceptable nor desirable that human rights activism is attached to any specific ideology. It had been proved historically that when more people join the in the effort towards the improvement of human rights based on shared understandings of human rights,the world can become a much better place. When it comes to human rights, there should be no left or right-wing Jinbo or Bosu. It is my extremely idealistic yet sincere hope that more people take interests in human rights beyond such politicization.
Translated by Hyunkyung Yu (Ewha Womans University GSIT)
Edited by Jooyea Lee