[Column] My reflection on Human Asia as a torch of hope
Kim Hyuk, Director of Human Asia
Professor of Public Administration, University of Seoul,
For the longest time, I have been using my busy schedule as an excuse for my lack of involvement in and contemplation upon human rights issues. Historically, human rights have been perceived as problems directly related to our lives. Experiencing Japanese occupation and the establishment of Republic of Korea, Koreans went through a long period of dictatorships without realizing fully-fledged democracy. Therefore, achieving human rights may have been one of the important goals in our lives. Now our lives are totally different from those periods. Thus, in a way we are living our daily lives as if we had never been interested in human rights, without paying much attention to the current status of human rights in Korean society. Looking back, human rights situations back in the 1980s were extremely bad. University students at that time were arbitrally stopped on the street by the police and their bag were searched just because they were uni students.
Search and detention without warrants were frequent. Cracking down on students in protest went as far as to injure them by force, and even caused the deaths of many students in protest. Some student protestors were forced to serve the military after the arrest. We also vividly remember that students were even tortured to death during the process of the investigation. Under the military dictatorship, human rights had been violated and ignored. Under the pretext of economic development as well as the national security, many people had to suffer from the severe violation of human rights in places where no human rights were guaranteed.
However, history progresses with time. We have achieved the world’s recognition with great national competitiveness in terms of economy and politics. We have proudly accomplished what we thought it only possible in someone’s dreams even a few decades ago. People around the world call our remarkable economic success ‘the Miracle of Han River.’ The miracle went beyond the economy as it led to a political breakthrough. The military dictatorship succumbed to a civilian government, followed by a significant power transition where the liberal opposition party took power after defeating the orthodox ruling party in the election. As a result, we were able to secure political freedom. During such process, people came to reach social agreement on the significance of human rights.
In particular, human rights began to emerge as one of the crucial social issues in Korea with the landmark establishment of the National Human rights Commission of Korea in 2001. The commission opened a floodgate for human rights improvement by categorizing various kinds of discriminative actions, which had been unnoticed, into infringement on human rights. In doing so, we came to define human rights in more comprehensive ways. Freedom house, a human rights watchdog, annually reports the rankings of countries in regard to the freedom of press. Although, recently, there have been some changes in rankings, I believe that the view on Korea as a free nation is firmly grounded.
Nonetheless, we must take note as to whether we are living with our basic rights fully guaranteed, in this namely free nation or whether the nation is a human rights nation where human rights are so well-ensured that they are no longer an issue in question. Until recently, we are aware that numerous cases of foreign workers’ human rights being infringed often became headlines. Most recently, a movie, “The Crucible,” has caused a great sensation as the movie was about the hearing-impaired students in a special-education school, where they were sexually assaulted by several school staff members. People in Korea are still boiling over the human rights abuses shown in the movie. This demonstrates that there are the vulnerable and the socially marginalized whose human rights need special attentions for protection. This remains in question these days. Even though human rights of ours are guaranteed, we do not deserve to fully enjoy human rights when we are indifferent to those of others which are often ignored.
Korea is the only country in the world that used to be aid recipients, now a donor nation. Many developing countries visit Korea to learn the know-how of the economic development. They are willing to accept our help. They have their hopes up by seeing our achievement because we also experienced the fear in the ruins of war-torn country as well as suffered from abject poverty. In this respect, Korea is a hope for people in countries where human rights are not secured adequately. This is because Korea, as a nation where human rights were once disregarded, has evolved into a nation where human rights are improved to a great extent..
Korea can play a greater role in the world human rights protection. This is because we have experienced a great improvement in human rights, though these rights were once severely violated. I often wish Korea can be a hope for those who still suffer enormously from acts against human rights. In this regard, I also wish various activities of Human Asia light up their path with a torch of true hope. However small the light may be, I raise high the torch in the belief that people in desperate need would see the hope by the light.
Translated by Koo Young-woo, Hankuk University of Foreigh Studies GSIT