Despite heavy criticism and international sanctions, North Korea has done little to change its human rights record. Typically, sanctions and travel bans harm civilians more than elites and government officials; they also further create difficulties for those attempting to bring foreign aid into North Korea. Many countries, including South Korea, routinely downplay or ignore human rights issues when negotiating with North Korea, in hopes that communication will bring about improvement in such areas.

South Korea faces a trade-off in choosing between maintaining a peaceful coexistence with North Korea or condemning its government’s human rights violations. According to Human Rights Watch, South Korea has prioritized diplomacy with its authoritarian counterpart over human rights concerns.

Discussions surrounding unification frequently focus on economic and social concerns, but one overlooked area includes whether South Korea should punish North Koreans who have committed crimes against humanity. For example, attempts to leave North Korea often result in incarceration and torture, and prisoners are executed for the most trivial reasons.

South Korean attitudes toward North Korea’s human rights abuses are critical to any discussion of potential unification, as the legacy of these abuses will not disappear with the Kim regime’s demise. To identify whether the public is as reluctant as the administration to address human rights, we conducted a web survey of 1,200 South Koreans through Western Kentucky University’s International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

We first asked, “When it comes to human rights abuses in North Korea, do you feel that South Korea has a responsibility to help North Koreans?”

Around 61% of respondents agreed. This may be due to the inclusion of the word “responsibility” in our question. South Korea has many programs and benefits for North Korean defectors, such as automatic citizenship after processing and tools designed to help them integrate into South Korean society. Though such programs have much room to improve, South Koreans may be hesitant to call these issues their “duty” — even if they do not appear to be unsympathetic.


Next, we randomly assigned respondents to one of two prompts:

Version 1: If unification were to occur, do you believe that North Korean officials should be punished for human rights violations?

Version 2: If unification were to occur, do you believe that North Korean officials should be punished for human rights violations, even if doing so increased tensions with North Koreans?


Among those that received the first version, 70.72% responded that North Korean officials should be punished post-unification. However, when potential conflicts were involved, support decreased by about 7%. This shows that some South Koreans are sensitive to redressing human rights if it complicates the broader goal of unification. Increased tensions in addition to several other obstacles may leave many people willing to forget North Korea’s human rights crimes.

But the majority of the respondents answered affirmatively, suggesting that despite hesitation, the South Korean public acknowledges the value in addressing North Korea’s human rights abuses.

While downplaying human rights abuses may facilitate inter-Korean dialogue, this is only a temporary convenience. For the Moon Jae-in administration, stating an intention to punish human rights abuses would anger North Korean officials, and many South Koreans also want to avoid provoking their unstable northern counterpart. For this reason, the Moon administration may be better off passing this responsibility to intergovernmental organizations. This may allow for relations between the two Koreas to retain some goodwill, while also establishing a plan for protecting human rights whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Carolyn Brueggemann is an honors undergraduate researcher majoring in International Affairs and Mandarin Chinese at Western Kentucky University.

Anakin Cary is a graduate of the WKU Honors College currently pursuing graduate work in the field of international cooperation.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics, with a focus on East Asian democracies.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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