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(LEAD) UN office starts probe into N.K. human rights violations: gov't official

All Headlines 11:47 April 04, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 3, 12-14)

SEOUL, April 4 (Yonhap) -- A U.N. office on North Korea's human rights is carrying out interviews with North Korean defectors in a bid to investigate Pyongyang's treatment of its people, a government official said Monday.

The United Nations opened its field office in June last year in Seoul to monitor North Korea's human rights violations, recommended by the U.N. Commission's landmark report on the country's dismal record on human rights.

"Since February, the government has cooperated with the U.N. office by allowing it to hold interviews with North Korean defectors," Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman at Seoul's unification ministry, told a regular press briefing.

Another ministry official said that the ministry has approved the office's request to have interviews with North Korean defectors at a resettlement center.

The U.N. office is conducting written interviews with North Korean defectors at Hanawon, a facility in which defectors receive a three-month resettlement education after coming to South Korea, the official said.

If needed, the office is carrying out in-depth face-to-face interviews to further glean evidence of North Korea's widespread violations of human rights.

North Korea has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. Pyongyang has bristled at such criticism, calling it a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.

The communist regime does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps tight control over outside information.

In December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution for the second consecutive year that calls for referring the North to the International Criminal Court for human rights violations.

A new law that aims to improve the North's dismal treatment of its people was passed last month after being held up for years due to political wrangling between conservatives and liberals.

In accordance with the law, Seoul is seeking to establish a center tasked with investigating the North's human rights violations and collect relevant data and create an archives on the issue.

If the center is created, the ministry is not likely to allow the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a civic group handling Pyongyang's rights issues, to investigate the North's human rights situation, a ministry source said. With the government taking charge of record-keeping, a civic group handling the matter would be redundant.

Jeong said that it is too early to say how the U.N. office and an envisioned center on the North's rights will cooperate.

"It is premature to comment on (details of their cooperation). But the government will make efforts to improve North Korea's human rights situation with the U.N. and other countries," he added.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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