*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK
N. Korea's Harsh Human Rights Record Draws International Attention
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has rejected a recent report by the United States that blasted the socialist nation's human rights conditions, citing alleged "torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments" along with public executions. Pyongyang described the report as being inspired by a Western conspiracy to "eliminate the state and social system" of the country.
The U.S. State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report said North Koreans are "denied freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and the government attempts to control all information," noting reports of "extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, arrests of political prisoners, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, and torture."
It added that the North's human rights record remains "deplorable" under an "absolute" dictatorship by reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, with the government continuing to "commit numerous serious abuses."
The report comes after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granted Lee Ae-ran, a North Korean defector, the Award for International Women of Courage in an apparent effort to draw international attention to North Korea's dire human rights situation. Lee, a professor of nutrition and culinary arts at Kyungin Women's College in South Korea, was among 10 prize recipients on March 10.
"She was a witness to tyranny at a very early age," Clinton said. "She defected to South Korea and transformed her life, where she has been a force for promoting human rights of the North Korean refugee community." First lady Michelle Obama, also attending the award ceremony, noted Lee's eight years in a prison camp as a child. "After a harrowing escape to South Korea, she became a tireless advocate for North Korean refugees and the first defector to run for Korea's national assembly."
The U.S. report detailed the following violations:
-- North Korean citizens are "denied freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and the government attempted to control all information."
-- "There was no civilian control of the security forces, and members of the security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses."
-- There are continued reports of "extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, arrests of political prisoners, harsh and life threatening prison conditions, and torture."
Speaking to reporters on the release of the report, Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, described North Korea as "an incredibly closed society," noting "a total intolerance of dissent; lots of prisoners in very poor conditions; very little room for people to even get information." He described it as "probably one of the most closed societies in the world."
The report touched on the hardship of North Koreans fleeing to neighboring China in search of food and a better life. "There continued to be reports of severe punishment of some repatriated refugees," it said. "There were widespread reports of trafficking in women and girls among refugees and workers crossing the border into China."
The report said "tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands" crossed the border into China last year. "Some settled semipermanently in northeastern China, others traveled back and forth across the border, and others sought asylum and permanent resettlement in third countries," it said. "A few thousand citizens gained asylum in third countries during the year."
South Korea has received about 18,000 North Korean defectors since the end of the Korean War. The U.S. has taken in nearly 100 North Korean refugees since the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.
China has been under criticism for repatriating North Korean refugees under a secret agreement with North Korea, recognizing defectors as economic immigrants rather than refugees.
Repatriated North Koreans are subject to "a minimum of five years of labor correction," or "indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property, or death," the report said.
Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, said recently that the U.S. is "very concerned about humanitarian issues" in North Korea and will "continue to press human rights issues as we've done in the past."
King, however, emphasized the difficulty of getting good information. Since taking office in November, he has toured South Korea, Japan and China on fact-finding missions, but has yet to visit North Korea.
His predecessor, Jay Lefkowitz, was never allowed into North Korea. In a report to sum up his four-year tenure in January last year, Lefkowitz urged Obama to emphasize human rights in the six-party talks and link any aid to Pyongyang with human rights improvements.
On March 13, King said the U.S. will raise the issue of North Korean human rights in future six-party nuclear talks, once they have resumed and made a certain amount of progress, a U.S. envoy said.
But King added: "The six-party talks are not just one little narrow box," hoping that the multilateral nuclear talks will become the venue to address human rights and other issues involving the reclusive communist North.
The six-party talks -- which seek North Korea's denuclearization in return for economic and diplomatic incentives -- have not been held since December 2008, and the North threatened to quit them entirely after the U.N. imposed sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile tests last spring.
The State Department, however, said King will not be part of the U.S. delegation to the nuclear talks, a policy consistent with that of the Bush administration, which did not want to jeopardize the fragile multilateral forum.
The human rights issue drew attention at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. On March 15, the U.N. special envoy on the North's human rights, Vivit Muntarbhorn, presented his latest report to the U.N. council which accused the North Korean regime of turning the country into a "big prison," controlling its population with widespread and "horrific" abuses.
The North Korean government runs a "state of fear" while people are denied sufficient quantities of food, the independent special rapporteur said, adding Pyongyang was running a "distorted" food policy which put the military ahead of ordinary citizens and left many without basic goods.
Aid organizations, including the U.N.'s World Food Program, were also being prevented from functioning, in whole or in part, in North Korea, he told the council. Muntarbhorn said the country's national resources are distorted in favor of militarization and the ruling elite, he added, urging the government to change its "military first" policy to a one of "people first" with appropriate budget allocations.
Muntarbhorn will step down from his role as rights envoy to the DPRK (North Korea) this year, after six years in the position. Reflecting on his tenure, the expert told reporters in Geneva that malnutrition has been predominant for many years. "Children are instrumentalized by the state," he said, while women's rights were also abused.
The expert criticized the justice system in North Korea, saying it was subservient to the state. Impunity was rife and capital punishment was regularly used.
Recent economic policies, including a re-evaluation of the currency has lead to "huge inflation" which was further hampering efforts by citizens to wean themselves off the state-controlled mechanisms and provide for their own basic needs, including food.
The North Korean envoy to the U.N. in Geneva, Choe Myong-nam, refuted the report, saying the U.S., Japan and the European Union were working in "conspiracy, in an attempt to eliminate the DPRK under the pretext of human rights."
On March 13, North Korea's state media said it does not recognize the legitimacy of the U.N. special envoy on its human rights, arguing that the system is a U.S. scheme to undermine its prestige. Under a 2004 U.N. mandate, Muntarbhorn, a Thai law professor, has been working as a special rapporteur on North Korean human rights. The mandate is due to end in June.
In a report, the North's Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) declared that Pyongyang will never recognize the "ghost-like" special rapporteur, insisting that the system is a "leftover of the already defunct" U.N. committee on human rights.
The KCNA charged that the United States, through the U.N. special rapporteur, is trying to "politicize the human rights issue" internationally.
In January, Muntarbhorn also described human rights conditions in North Korea as "extremely grave," disclosing that the country has toughened measures to punish its people caught trying to flee the country.
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