The Papers of George Lister: "Mr Human Rights"

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In a 1999 memorandum to then Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh, George Lister wrote, ''I personally feel the South Korea story is an excellent example of how the human rights cause has helped to improve our overall foreign policy and to offer a much better future for the human race.''

Lister became involved in South Korean affairs through a relationship he developed with Kim Dae-jung, a Korean dissident who eventually was elected president of South Korea (1998-2003) and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. In 1980, Kim had been arrested by the Korean army and sentenced to death by a military court. Through the intervention of President Reagan, his death sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison. Kim's prison sentence was suspended in December 1982, and Kim was exiled to the U.S., where he accepted a fellowship at Harvard University.

After meeting Kim in early 1983, Lister began an effort to give him an audience in the State Department. Although Reagan had helped to spare Kim's life, the State Department was reluctant to appear too supportive of Kim, given South Korea's strategic importance in the Cold War. The East Asia Affairs Bureau, then led by Paul Wolfowitz, considered Kim to be a ''trouble maker'' and a ''flake,'' according to Lister.

Kim was eventually permitted to come to the human rights bureau to meet with Assistant Secretary of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Elliott Abrams. ''We had a big fight before the guy was actually permitted to enter the State Department,'' Abrams recently recalled. Later, the East Asia Affairs Bureau changed its stance, agreeing to meet with Kim.

In 1984, after completing his fellowship at Harvard, Kim Dae-jung began to plan his return to Korea. He sought Lister's input on his decision to return, and Lister arranged for Kim to speak at the State Department's Open Forum in 1985. Kim's speech, entitled ''The United States and the Prospects for Democracy in the Third World,'' was well-received, even though it contained some criticism of the foreign policy of the United States with regard to Korea. Kim later told Lister that he regarded his Open Forum speech ''as his greatest success in the U.S.''

Kim returned to Seoul on February 8, 1985, and was immediately placed under house arrest. He had not returned to Korea alone but with a group of supporters including members of the U.S. Congress, non-governmental activists, and Korean-Americans. In June 1987, he was cleared of all charges, and ran unsuccessfully for President. He ran again in 1992 before winning the December presidential election in 1997 and making history, at the age of 72, as the first opposition leader to become President of South Korea.

Lister's rapport with Kim appears to have improved the relationship between Korean human rights activists and the U.S. State Department. Soon after Kim's return to Korea in 1985, and largely at Lister's urging, Korean democratic groups began to visit the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. In one instance, Lister invited Reverend Ko Yeong Kun, a Korean Presbyterian minister and supporter of Kim Dae-jung who was highly critical of U.S. foreign policy in South Korea, to come to the State Department and ''get to know the USG better.''

Lister and Kim remained in contact throughout the 1990s. In 1994, Lister was invited by Kim's foundation, the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation, to give a speech in South Korea. When Kim was elected President in 1997, Lister was invited to Seoul to attend the inauguration.

Lister's statement that South Korea represents a success story of how the human rights cause has improved U.S. foreign policy raises several questions. To what degree is U.S. human rights policy a pro-democracy policy? Is South Korea a human rights success story because it became a democracy? And how does improved dialogue between Korean human rights groups and the U.S. government serve U.S. foreign policy?

In a 1987 speech entitled ''Korea and United States Human Rights Policy,'' as well as in his 1999 memo to Koh on the U.S. government's South Korea policy, Lister moves seamlessly between the terms ''human rights'' and ''democracy.'' The section of this web site entitled ''Lister's Legacy: Human Rights, Democracy and U.S. Foreign Policy'' takes up the question of the relationship between democracy and human rights in more detail.

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