Human rights are a major area of contention in relations between the United States and East Asia. At times, there is conflict because of different cultural perceptions of human rights, and other times there is conflict due to perceived American hypocrisy on the subject of human rights. This tension has been present throughout America’s relations with East Asian states since the end of the Cold War in 1945. Throughout this time period America has espoused its belief in a set of universal human rights that include things like individual freedom, freedom of speech, and a right to democracy. Many Asian leaders reject these values arguing that they are Western values that the U.S. is trying to impose on them, and note the many times that the U.S. has failed to live up to them. This essay will focus on this tension as it relates to U.S. relations with the Korean Peninsula and China.
America’s involvement in Korea after WWII was based on the logic of the Cold War and containing the communist ideology of the Soviet Union. Korea was not a highly sought after prize, but rather something to keep away from the Soviets. The U.S. relationship with Korea began with the U.S. Military Government in Korea, USMGIK, which ruled the southern half of the peninsula for three years. From the beginning the USMGIK didn’t live up to America’s stated values of freedom and democracy. USMGIK disempowered local governing structures and instead relied upon ex-colonial Japanese officials despite the popular wishes of the Korean population. During its time in power, USMGIK also undemocratically favored right wing Korean factions, and ignored their many abuses of ideological opponents. One of these factions that were supported by USMGIK was future president Syngman Rhee.
South Korea was ruled by autocratic leaders until 1987, and yet despite American rhetoric about democracy remained an American ally. This support for autocratic leaders who committed human rights violations made many South Koreans view America as a hypocritical actor that only cared about using Korea strategically. Some of this was based on misperceptions, but for Americans strategic concerns overrode their distaste for authoritarian leaders like Presidents Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. In the 1980s, many South Korean college students became increasingly angry about the American contradictions, which led to large anti-American protests. One of the inciting events was based on misperceptions of American involvement, but remains a keystone the perceptions of American hypocrisy about human rights in South Korea. In 1980, in the city of Gwangju, college students and other citizens protested leader Chun Doo-hwan, who had come to power through a military coup. President Chun eventually used Korean military forces to put down the protests which resulted in hundreds of deaths. Many people believed that America was involved in this decision because under an operational control agreement American military leaders were required to approve any South Korean troop movements. There has been no solid evidence that America approved the use of troops against civilians, however the U.S. was slow to put forth their side of the story and continued to support President Chun after the massacre.
Now that South Korea and the U.S. are both democratic societies, their human rights practices have mostly converged, and differences are more of a historical matter. The perception of American hypocrisy still colors much of the anti-American sentiment in Korea that has the potential to destabilize the treaty partnership, but views on human rights have become aligned to the point where Korean celebrities criticize American human rights abuses like torture of Iraqi prisoners. Human rights remain a critical consideration in North Korea, one of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers. America has at times put a spotlight on North Korean human rights abuses, such as when President Bush met with a North Korean refugee who escaped from a prison camp. North Korea has in response criticized American for its hostile intent, and justifies many of its policies by a need to protect North Korean citizens from American invasion. In this vision, human rights and freedom are more based on freedom to be Korean and freedom from other countries interference than individual freedom. While much of this is posturing based on a desire for control by the North Korean regime, given Korea’s ethnocentricity and its long history of invasions and its time under Japanese colonial rule it is not all empty words.
The other major country where human rights concerns have played a major role in the American relationship is China. China is a non-democratic country that strictly controls dissent and censors the information that citizens are able to access. The Chinese Communist Party has stated that it needs to maintain control to prevent the spread of chaos and continue economic development. In meetings with Americans, one Chinese official pointed out the large number of Chinese living in poverty and stated that you need to have humans before you can have human rights. America and China’s relationship is one of the most pivotal ones in international affairs, and on several occasions human rights concerns have featured significantly. In the 1980’s the U.S.-Chinese relationship was becoming closer based on a mutual policy towards containing the Soviet Union, but in 1989 China used military force to put down a student protest movement based in Tiananmen Square. In this operation many lost their lives and it came to be seen as representative of the brutality of Chinese Communist rule. After this event, relations with the west became strained, and sanctions were put into place. American President George Bush was criticized for trying rapprochement with China in the aftermath of the massacre. The next American President, Bill Clinton, tried to make parts of the U.S.-China, such as most favored nation status, relationship contingent on improving human rights conditions in China, but was mostly unsuccessful. The Chinese refused to change their policies and only made token gestures like releasing a small number of dissidents from jail, and pointed out that countries like France were willing to deal with China without bringing up human rights issues. Ultimately, U.S. economic interests proved stronger than human rights concerns and America continued to grant China MFN status despite China not meeting America’s stated criteria. The human rights issue still causes strain, with America and China both releasing annual reports listing human rights violations by the other, with China pointing out issues like the large economic disparity in America or American’s large prison population.
There are some human rights issues that are almost universally recognized, such as governments should not kill innocents, or maintain concentration camps for political prisoners, that should be defended. America should address legitimate concerns such as these, even if it might mean economic sacrifices. In other instances, there are legitimate differences on the need to maintain stability and economic rights as well as individual rights. These differing beliefs will continue to affect American and East Asian relationships, but America should take care that it doesn’t appear hypocritical by engaging in the same behaviors that it condemns. Also, Asian leaders should not be excused for grossly violating human rights by claiming cultural differences. A realistic policy on dealing with human rights in East Asia that is pragmatic and principled will best serve the region and America, rather than the inconsistent one that is currently in place.