Hypocrisy of U.S. Human Rights Policy on North and South Korea

There has never been a perfect government. One of the primary principles of democracy is that its defects are always visible and certain democratic procedures can be pointed out and easily corrected. This must have been the policy of United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed militias. [1: President Truman’s Message to Congress; March 12, 1947; Document 171; 80th Congress, 1st Session; Records of the United States House of Representatives; Record Group 233; National Archives.]

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On October 7th, 1944, Kim Ju-Yeol was born as the second son to Kim Jae-Gye and Gwon Chan-Ju in Namwon, South Korea. After surviving the Korean War, Kim was able to continue his education in Namwon. Kim graduated from Geumji Middle School and moved to Masan City to prepare for Masan Commercial School examination on March 10th, 1960. Like most South Koreans after the Korean War, Kim was a passionate supporter of democracy and a believer in the importance of entrepreneurship.

Kim had participated in the first Masan Uprising and protested on March 15th, 1960 against the Liberal Party of South Korea for fabricating 1960 election results. However, on that very night, Kim disappeared at the Democratic Party’s headquarters where the protest was held. [2: “Korea Democracy Foundation Newsletter No. 18.” Korea Democracy Foundation Newsletter No. 18. http://www.kdemocracy.or.kr/mail/newsletter/mail_article_200703_03.html.] [3: Ibid.]

Born in 1875, Syngman Rhee was the first democratic president of the Republic of Korea, after its liberation from Japan. Spending his early life in various countries such as Japan, Geneva, and the United States, President Rhee was absent from his motherland for nearly 30 years during the Japanese colonization of Korea. Even though he was “almost American” and very much accustomed to the American culture, President Rhee always retained a passion for Korea and wished for it to become a free and democratic nation of its own.

In fact, Gen. MacArthur ordered Col. Goodfellow, the former Deputy Director of the Office of Strategic Services, to send President Rhee to Korea. Gen. MacArthur also ordered Gen. Hodge, who was in charge of the U.S. Army in Korea in 1945, to treat President Rhee “with respect and appoint Rhee as the chosen puppet to control the ‘Korean mobs’”. This support by the United States was crucial in the 1948 election right before the Korean War and allowed President Rhee to easily win not only the 1948 election but three consecutive terms after the end of the Korean War. [4: Oliver, Robert Tarbell. Syngman Rhee : The Man behind the Myth. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1954. ] [5: Lee, Wha Rang. “Who Was Rhee Syngman?” World History Archive, February 22, 2000. ]

The Republic of Korea during the post-war era was not a desirable country to reside in. When the 1960 election began, South Korea’s unemployment rate was nearly 16% and its GDP per capita was approximately 1106 U.S. dollars. Since the economic situation resulted in such devastating living conditions, the citizens of South Korea were rightfully outraged and desired a change in the government system as well as a new president. The 1960 presidential election was thrown into further turmoil when Choung Pyong-Ok, who was President Rhee’s primary opponent in the election, suddenly died of heart disease in Washington D.C. Feeling the possibility of an end to his regime in the political and economic turmoil, President Rhee sought to make the “only Korean man whom he enjoyed sociably”, Lee Ki-Poong, to be his “running mate” for vice president.

In addition to selecting his close personal friend as a running mate, President Rhee also skewed the results of the election by “beating up election workers and supervising voters in the ballots with armed police”. During the course of such efforts, Rhee’s close allies, the United States, neither protested nor spoke against the severe abuses of power. [6: Kim, H. (2006). Job Flow and Unemployment in Korea: A Search Theoretic Approach. Economic Analysis, 12, 26-66.] [7: Oliver, R. T. (1978). Syngman Rhee and American involvement in Korea, 1942-1960: a personal narrative. Panmun Book Co.] [8: Ibid.] [9: Ibid.]

Around 7 P.M. on March 15th, 1960, a group of students, including Kim Ju-Yeol, gathered in front of the Democratic Party’s Headquarters in Chang-dong, Masan. Students could not believe the fact that such a corrupt voting system could exist in an ostensibly democratic nation such as the Republic of Korea. After the protest had begun, the police force fired upon citizens, causing multiple deaths and injuries. This, however, was just the beginning of the revolution.

A month later on April 11th, 1960, Kim Ju-Yeol, aged sixteen, was found dead in Shinpo harbor near Masan City Hall with a police tear-gas grenade stuffed in his left eye socket. As news of the incident spread, college and high school students all over South Korea became outraged and initiated the April 1960 Korean Student Movement. [10: Kim, C. E., & Kim, K. S. (1964). The April 1960 Korean Student Movement. The Western Political
Quarterly, 83-92.]

Infuriated by the fact that the government so harshly punished a sixteen-year-old student for supporting democracy, students of South Korea were even more enraged by President Rhee’s response to the Masan Uprising. In order to cover up the gross human rights violations as well as public news of the incident, President Rhee immediately claimed that the Masan Uprising was caused by “communists”.

At this point, the hypocrisy of the United States human rights policy emerges. Despite the immoral and undemocratic behaviors of President Rhee, the United States responded with silence. In fact, the United States response consisted of, “President Eisenhower simply ‘warning’ President Syngman Rhee that irregularities in the Korea elections last month could lead to trouble.” [11: Special to The NewYork Times. (1960, Apr 17). Seoul Says Reds Fomented Riots. New York Times (1923-Current File) ] [12: William J Jorden Special to The New,York Times. (1960, Apr 28). President Denies Korea Pressue. New York Times (1923-Current File)]

Further examination reveals the United States’ strong reluctance to be involved in the affair. However, circumstances as well as U.S. interests in Korea eventually forced U.S. to become involved. Since newspapers in South Korea publically displayed Kim Ju-Yeol’s picture and the April Revolution had begun, the United States government could not remain silent on the issue for long. Even then, it took the U.S. Secretary of State over a month to officially espouse the holding of re-elections in accordance with democratic ideals as well as support the guarantee of freedoms of expression and assembly.

It took even longer before the U.S. State Department released a statement calling for the increased democratization and pressing for the resignation of President Rhee. In fact, the timeline from President Rhee’s election to resignation through Masan Uprising and the April 1960 Korean Student Movement is just one of many cases representing of the hypocrisy of U.S. human rights policy in regards to the Korean peninsula after the Korean War. [13: Pyo, Yein. “South Korean Students Force Dictator to Resign, New Elections, 1960.” Global Nonviolent
Action Database. Swarthmore College, 10 June 2012.]

Post Korean War, the U.S financed a series of authoritarian regimes in South Korea. During this period, the militaries of both South Korea and the U.S. committed egregious actions, which violated the rights and freedom of the Korean citizens. Citizens were often abducted, illegally detained, tortured and then executed under the guise of political security and social harmony. Censorship, as well as other violations of basic freedoms, was commonplace. The U.S. government was well aware of what its military forces were doing in South Korea and the U.S. government financed Korean military operations. The U.S government insisted that it was simply protecting the rights of South Koreans and ensuring democracy amongst turmoil. Yet again and again, the hypocrisy of this logic was revealed. [15: 15 Forsythe, David P. “Human rights in US foreign policy: retrospect and prospect.” Political Science Quarterly (1990): 430-452.]

Ironically, American involvement in human rights abuse in Korea began even before the Korean War. In late 1947, the U.S. government supported South Korean elections as a response to the Soviet Union supported elections that were held in the Northern part of the Korean peninsula. However, citizens in the southern portions of the Korean peninsula saw this as an attempt at forcing puppet state status upon Korea. In particular, the Workers’ Party of South Korea sought to block upcoming elections through protests on Jeju Island, the largest island off the coast of Korea. However, as the protests were being held in early spring of 1948, Jeju Island police fired on the protesters, killing 6 of them.

In response, protesters attacked police stations, which led to the killing of over 100 police officers. By end of April, the uprising had turned into a full-blown rebellion against the Korean government. However, the American military government on the island initially had a muted response and did not interfere as the South Korean Lieutenant General Kim Ik Ruhl tried his best to peacefully negotiate with the rebels. [16: Yamamoto, Eric K. and Lee, Sara and Lee, Yea Jin, The United States’ Role in the Korea Jeju April 3rd Tragedy and its Responsibility for ‘Social Healing Through Justice’ (October 2012). 2 World Environment and Island Studies 1, pp. 49-57, 2012. ] [17: Ibid.] [18: Katsiaficas, George. Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 1: South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century. Oakland, CA, USA: PM Press, 2012. 89-100]

Lieutenant General Kim sought to end the insurrection by repeatedly meeting with the rebel leader Kim Dalsam (a former Worker’s Party member) but the two failed to reach a compromise. At this point, the rebellion took a fateful turn when Kim Dalsam chose to side with the Communist Party of Korea and Kim instead of seeking further negotiations. Lieutenant General Kim Ruhl was recalled to the mainland and the American military government, which now considered the Jeju Rebellion a communist uprising, quickly stepped in to assist in an offensive against the Jeju people. [19: Katsiaficas, George. Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 1: South Korean Social Movements in the20th Century. Oakland, CA, USA: PM Press, 2012. 89-100]

In the process, it is important to note the American military’s dramatic change in attitude towards the Jeju rebels. While American response against the Jeju protestors was initially silent, the moment the protestors declared their alliance with the Communist Party, the American military threw out all pretence of human rights recognition and civic responsibility towards the citizens of Jeju Island. Even if the protesters had declared their allegiance to the Communist Party, the American military did not have the right to use violence in such a manner against a civilian population. And violence and destruction were most definitely applied.

President Syngman Rhee declared martial law on Jeju Island and with the support of the United States Military government in Jeju, proceeded to order hard-line measures against the Jeju people. By 1949, four South Korean battalions under the guidance of the U.S. military government as well as the Korean Military Advisory group had been dispatched to Jeju Island. Wanton destruction of villages, massacres of villagers, and other brutal methods were applied to put an end to the insurgency. By the end of the uprising, close to 20,000 citizens of Jeju Island had been killed and multiples more had been displaced, injured or declared missing. The United States, despite its membership in the UN, was complicit in all these acts. The U.S. military referred to the devastation of Jungsangan village and the massacre of its citizens, a “successful operation”.

The American ambassador to Korea even sent a message at the conclusion of the uprising that all Jeju rebels had been, “killed, captured, or converted.” Even the actions of U.S. media in publishing the massacres and destruction of villages did not prevent further atrocities from occurring. Is it no wonder that such American hypocrisy in enabling such violence while espousing human rights and freedoms on the mainland of Korea resulted in a distrust of the American government on the Korean peninsula during the 1940s and 50s? [20: Ibid.] [21: Ibid.] [22: Katsiaficas, George. Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 1 : South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century. Oakland, CA, USA: PM Press, 2012. 89-100] [23: Johnson, Chalmers. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000, rev. 2004 ed.). Owl Book. 100]

This suppressing of human rights and freedoms in the name of preventing communism did not end with U.S. military participation in the Jeju Uprising. Happening almost concurrently with the occurrence of the Jeju Uprising, the Yeosu–Suncheon Uprising that lasted from 1948-1949, further cemented the idea that U.S. statements about the importance of human rights and freedoms was nothing but lip service for U.S. interests in the East Asian region. Unlike the Jeju Uprising, which was predominantly led by civilian protesters, the Yeosu-Suncheon Uprising began within the barracks of the Korea military itself.

Because Yeosu-Suncheon is in Southern Jeolla province, which is adjacent to the Jeju islands, soldiers from the Yeosu-Suncheon region were among the first to be ordered to participate in the suppression of the Jeju Uprising. However, due to the close ties that the region historically had with Jeju Island, the people of Yeosu-Suncheon were understandably reluctant to participate in the brutal repression of their neighbors. [24: Byung-joon, J. (2002). Attempts to Settle the Past during the April Popular Struggle. Jung, 42(3), 88-111.]

Although it is uncertain whom the first soldier was to refuse the orders that came from Seoul, what is known is that eventually, the revolting soldiers proceeded to take over the local town of Yeosu with the support of local civilians. Eventually the ranks of the rebelling soldiers increased to over 3,000 and the soldiers took over the neighboring town of Suncheon too. As the Yeosu-Suncheon Uprising gained momentum, its ranks quickly swelled, as it became the flashpoint of popular sentiment against what was perceived as colonial tendencies by Western governments such as the United States. The participants in the Uprising at one point even tried to declare themselves an independent Korean republic for the people. The Korean government had no choice but to respond and put down the Yeosu-Suncheon Uprising.

Similar to what had occurred during the Jeju Uprising, American forces took a lead role in not only directing the operations against the rebelling soldiers, but also in supplying the troops and identifying strategic targets. Although the U.S. soldiers did not technically participate in direct combat, U.S. military advisors were on scene during many of the village massacres and visible to Korean civilians who were being suppressed. Once again, despite the publishing of such pictures by American media outlets such as Life magazine as well as subsequent protests in America against U.S. participation in such atrocities, the American military government in Korea did not end its aid to the Korean military. In the end, over 439 civilians were killed and well over 2000 soldiers and civilians still remain missing. [28: Hankyoreh. “439 Civillians Confirmed Dead in Yeosu-Suncheon Uprising of 1948.” Hankyoreh. January 8, 2009.]

Visual Materials from the LIFE Magazine

It is important to note here that most recently, in 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the South Korea government has finally admitted the government and military’s role in the massacres and destruction of villages in Yeosu and Suncheon. As the commission stated, “There were no legal grounds for such an action. The field commander must have illegally arrested and killed civilians based on his own interpretation of the law.”

The commission has also called for an official apology by the Korean government for the massacre. However the U.S. government, which played an essential role in enabling the atrocious acts of the Korean military, still has not acknowledged responsibility for the violation of the rights of the citizens of Yeosu and Suncheon. [29: Ahn, Byung-ook. Truth and Reconciliation: Activities of the Past Three Years. Rep. Ahn Byung-Ook, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Korea, 20 Mar. 2009.] [30: Hankyoreh. “439 Civillians Confirmed Dead in Yeosu-Suncheon Uprising of 1948.” Hankyoreh. January 8, 2009.] [31: Ibid.]

By considering these cases of direct American intrusion against the rights of the Korean people prior to the Korean War, it can be seen that the U.S. promotion of democracy on the Korean peninsula stood in stark contrast against actual U.S. actions and policies on the Korean peninsula. Although the end of the Korean War and President Syngman Rhee’s regime allowed the U.S. military government to avoid direct intervention against the Korean people, the policy of the U.S. towards human rights on the Korean peninsula continued to fluctuate over the next half century.

After President Syngman Rhee was forced out of power as a result of the Masan Uprising, Yun Posun took control of the presidency as the head of the new democratic government. However, due to the aspects of political and economic tension such as corruption and the failing economy, the young Republic of Korea faced potential disaster. It was against this backdrop that Park Chung-hee, a military general, orchestrated a military coup to bring stability and an end to the political chaos. Although the coup, which usurped the democratic government, was ironically welcomed by the exhausted populace, the American military in Korea and its commanding officer General Magruder initially resisted this attempt to bring back a semblance of law and order to the South Korean society.

The incident reveals the difficulty of managing policy on the Korean peninsula. On one hand, the military coup was seen as desired by the population of the nation. On the other hand, the U.S. resistance to the coup can be seen as a strict adherence to the ideal of a democratically elected government. Even within the US the military had opposing opinions in regard to how the U.S. should have acted. Retired, General James Van Fleet criticized General Magruder by stating: [32: Kim, P. G., & Vogel, E. F. (Eds.). (2011). The Park Chung Hee Era. Harvard University Press. 359] [33: Kim, P. G., & Vogel, E. F. (Eds.). (2011). The Park Chung Hee Era. Harvard University Press. 54-56]

“Those ROK generals who refused to go along with the coup should have disobeyed [Magruder’s] order….It’s alright to talk about representative government, but except in countries like the United States and Great Britain, such a system lets elements get into the government and destroy it in underdeveloped countries where the enemy is lurking.” These complexities, and their impact on human rights, become more clear and nuanced under the regimes of Park Chung-hee and the next few presidents. [34: Time, Inc. “South Korea: Rocking the Boat.” Time., 28 July 1961.]

The U.S. government, under President Kennedy, becomes successful in pressuring Park Chung-hee to step away from the military government and allow for a return to civilian rule. Park Chung-hee, however, then proceeds to run for presidency and wins a mandate to rule and carry out his plans. Over the next 16 years, from 1963 – 1979, Park Chung-hee serves as the president of the Republic of Korea until he is assassinated. Although his presidency is noted for the spectacular economic growth and industrialization of South Korea, it is also important to note that President Park was notorious for repressing the Korean populace and restricting personal freedoms. It is these protests in particular that reveal the continued hypocrisy of the United States towards human rights. [35: Kim, P. G., & Vogel, E. F. (Eds.). (2011). The Park Chung Hee Era. Harvard University Press. 328] [36: Ibid. 420]

President Park’s abusive use of power prolongs throughout his presidency of South Korea. Not only he increases the presidential term from four to six years, but also allows the third presidential term, in order to stay in power. Furthermore, President Park adjusts the Constitution to prohibit any sort of criticism of the president and the South Korean government, in order to unjustly protect himself from any other political powers that opposed the  President Park.

Despite all these immoral behaviors of Park Chung-hee, the U.S. continued to advocate him throughout the 1970’s. President Park was more than supportive of sending South Korea troops to Vietnam in order to help the U.S. win the Vietnam War. In fact, there were total of 320,000 Korean soldiers deployed in Vietnam. [37: Yi, Py?ng-ch??n, ed. Developmental dictatorship and the Park Chung-Hee Era: The shaping of modernity in the Republic of Korea. Homa & Sekey Books, 2006. 26-28] [38: Ibid.] [39: Ibid. 248]

Therefore, as long as the South Korean government was supportive of the United States’ victory in the Vietnam War, the U.S. was ready to turn a blind-eye on President Park’s dictatorial behaviors in South Korea. The United States remaining silent on non-democratic policies of President Park that took away the rights of South Korean citizens is another demonstration of hypocrisy of the United States towards human rights.

The death of Park Chung-hee did not mean an end to a problem that South Korea faced. There were further uprisings and revolutions. One of the post-Park incidents was the Gwangju Uprising or the May 18th Uprising. It took place in the city of Gwangju, which is located in the South Jeolla Province of South Korea. The protest was in response to the implementation of the martial law, which not only denied the local citizens government representation but also introduced biases in the distribution of government resources. Approximately 5,000 students gathered at the gate of Chonnam University after the university was abruptly closed.

Police officers tried to disperse the students but the students threw stones at them. The conflict escalated as the students took to the streets. ROK paratroopers were deployed to disperse the protesters and left many of the students injured. As a result, other citizens joined the demonstrations and the number of protesters grew to over 10,000 by that very evening. South Korea’s President Chun Doo-Hwan managed to convince the U.S. government to allow him to deploy military troops to discipline the demonstrators. Consequently, the military was sent and killed approximately 1200 citizens and injured many more. [40: Bishop, Ellen, and Kyung-soon Lee. 2007. The May 18 Gwangju democratic uprising. [Kwangju]: May 18 History Compitation Committee of Gwangju City. 23-34]

South Korea’s army was unable to control the demonstrators since many had armed themselves and formed militias. The civilian militia managed to push the army out of the city. President Chun requested for backup from the U.S military. Surprisingly, the U.S. sent warplanes to shoot the demonstrators, killing around 260 people – many of whom were innocent and unarmed. As an advocate of democracy and human rights, the U.S. should have pleaded with President Chun to avoid attacking the demonstrators and instead address their concerns and issues. The implicit U.S. approval of such actions even led the international community to criticize the U.S. Several human rights organization demonstrated against the authorization of the murder and torture of innocent civilians.

After his military coup, Chun Doo-Hwan appointed himself President consolidated his power by assassinating his opponents. After this point, President Chun was invited by President Reagan to the White House in December of 1981. This shocked many citizens even in the U.S and sparked mass demonstrations against the invitation of a dictator to the U.S. soil. This was a bitter period for the families who lost their loved ones. Consequently, China and the U.K questioned the interests of the U.S in the uprising and called for legal actions by the U.N. These actions and policies revealed that the U.S was not interested in protecting Korean civilians, but rather was preoccupied with its own interests in the region. [42: Bishop, Ellen, and Kyung-soon Lee. 2007. The May 18 Gwangju democratic uprising. 111-134] [43: 44 Feffer, John. 2006. North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis. Seven Stories Press. 111-119]

In recent years, news from the CNSNews.com show that North Korea greatly condemns the US for pretending to be in full support of human rights internationally while it does not uphold this to the fullest, as observed especially in the incident where there was fatal shooting of an unarmed eighteen year old black boy known as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 44 The US has always condemned the two Korean states for violating human rights and even referred North Korea to the International Criminal Court for having abused human rights.

In 2005, North Korea decided to launch another nuclear weapon after several years of lacking one, claiming that this would be for self-defense, especially against the US imperialism. When 9/11 was attacked in the US, Washington decided to term North Korea as one of the members of the “axis of evil” and discouraged North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons, claiming that this is a major menace to the security of the world. The US administration even suggested that North Korea be brought before the UN Security Council for economic sanction imposition.

In North Korea, human rights are limited and practically, the freedom of speech is not guaranteed and the media and press is not free, those that are legal are managed by the government. Many prisoners, approximately 150,000 to 200,000 are incarcerated in many different prison camps and are subjected to physical abuse, forced labor and even sentenced to death. The government of North Korea makes it almost impossible for foreigners to enter the country for purposes other than tourism, and such tourists are usually monitored strictly and closely in all the activities they engage in. The UN General Assembly, since the year 2003, has committed to consistently condemning record of the human rights in North Korea.

In the economic life of North Koreans, the government is in charge of all means of production and the land is also practically owned by the state. The North Korean leader, however, claim that all the factors of production are owned by the people. This is untrue as seen from the poor economic conditions of most North Koreans. This has led to many cases of starving and even death due to famine. The Human Rights Council has not been effective in helping out these citizens. North Korean beggars on the streets of Pyongyang were recently cracked down families with low income earnings and very poor conditions were flushed out of the city and ordered to go live in the countryside.

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