In a recent newspaper interview, Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean opposition leader, made a statement that underlines one of the fundamental dilemmas for the United States in dealing internationally with issues of human rights.
Kim said: ''Human rights issues should not be a transaction between governments, but should be supported by the voice of world consciousness and by the power of our people. I would like to see an America which defends the principle even if I were not released.''
What Kim seems to be implying is that the official US efforts which helped save his life and permit him to leave South Korea, while appreciated, did not challenge the system that took away his freedom. He would prefer, for Korea and for the US, an America that placed its emphasis on the public promotion of democratic freedoms, even if such persons as he were not to go free. He joins others in the human rights movement who feel that only the strong weight of world public opinion, with the US in the forefront, will bring change in nondemocratic societies.
Official US efforts on behalf of human rights abroad have, perforce, been directed to other governments. As in the case of Kim, these efforts have been to a large extent on behalf of individuals seen as victims of political oppression: Bhutto in Pakistan, Aquino in the Philippines, Shcharansky in the Soviet Union. Would it be better for the cause of democracy if the US did not intervene officially in such cases?
Clearly, official intervention on behalf of a prominent foreign political personality through government channels represents, however one may look at it, an acceptance of the foreign regime and a compromise with it.
The motives may be laudable: pleas from family and supporters; the humanitarian impulse; a national empathy with those who are seeking political freedom.
The motives may also be tactical, designed to clear away conspicuous obstacles to normal relations. US diplomats may be acting under the pressure of congressional and public opinion. The US and foreign governments may have a common desire to remove an issue that precludes smooth cooperation in political and security matters. This desire has, undoubtedly, been a factor in the official discussions of action against opposition figures in Korea and the Philippines. Even official efforts on behalf of Soviet dissidents such as Shcharansky grow, in part, out of a realistic recognition that, without their release, it is more difficult to gain domestic acceptance of other negotiations with the Soviet Union.
There are risks for the US in pursuing such cases through diplomacy. When they are resolved by governmental agreement, the US is seen as having compromised with an oppressive regime. The US cannot always be sure of the true character of foreign political dissidents; they may themselves be autocrats who just happen to be out of power. Where the individual is a genuine advocate of more democratic rule, removing him from the country removes a fighter for a better system, often turning the individual into a decreasingly effective and disillusioned exile.
Kim would have us forgo such official efforts in the hope that the voice of this country and of others on behalf of democractic principles might otherwise be heard. How can that be done if governments are not involved?
The voice of the US Congress has been strong on human rights questions, but how can that voice be translated into action abroad except through official channels?
The voices of private groups in America and in Europe are strong, but authoritarian governments can easily drown them out.
A United States government, whatever its political flavor, cannot be inactive in human rights matters abroad without risking serious critical pressures at home and without giving signals of indifference, if not approval.
With all the hazards that intervention on behalf of individuals may entail, such action still represents a form of diplomatic activity on the part of the US that expresses its concern for the victims of oppression and carries the hope of keeping alive and active those who seek a different path for government.
Such actions do represent a compromise, because our capacity to confront and change other systems is limited. To set fundamental change as a goal may be unrealistic; it may also make less possible the pursuit of other objectives, such as our own security interests, arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, and a proper coordination of our views with those of our allies.
In the absence of a greater capacity to affect systems, our intervention on behalf of the victims of dictatorial rule represents an action consistent with our traditions and our principles. It is not a practice we can forgo without giving quite different and unwanted signals. We should have no illusions, however, that such interventions truly promote democratic change.