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(2nd LD) U.S. human rights report markedly dry on N. Korea's situation

All Headlines 06:10 April 14, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS forced labor, quote in 8th, last para)
By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, April 13 (Yonhap) -- North Korea continues to control political activity and ban or limit political opposition, while maintaining a network of political prison camps, the U.S. State Department said in its annual human rights report Wednesday.

But the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015 was markedly dry, compared with previous ones, about the North, and did not use expressions like "deplorable," "grim" or "among the worst in the world" to portray the situation.

It was unclear if it reflects a lack of U.S. interest in the issue or it was an intended restraint at a time when a American college student has been held in the communist nation after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda sign.

"Historically authoritarian regimes like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Cuba, China, Iran, Sudan, and Uzbekistan continued to control political activity and ban or limit political opposition," the report said in the introduction.

"The most recent national elections, held in March 2014, were neither free nor fair," the report said. "The government operated a network of political prison camps in which conditions were often harsh, life threatening, and included forced and compulsory labor."

The report also said that private citizens were subjected to public executions, and cited a Radio Free Asia report in April that the North executed the director general of the Unhasu Orchestra along with three members of the troupe.

"Reports stated they were first forced to strip naked and then shot by firing squad wielding machine guns in front of 400-500 members of the Pyongyang artistic community," it said.

The North is also forcing some 50,000-60,000 citizens to toil overseas under harsh conditions to earn hard currency, the report said.

The rest was largely the same as the 2014 report, including an account that the North subjected citizens to rigid controls over many aspects of their lives, including denial of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, movement, and worker rights.

Pyongyang has long been labeled as one of the worst human rights violators. The communist regime does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps tight control over outside information.

But the North has bristled at such criticism, calling it a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.

The North's human rights problem has drawn renewed international attention thanks to the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report that concluded that Pyongyang commits "widespread, systematic and gross" violations of human rights, and the International Criminal Court should handle the problem as "crimes against humanity."

The landmark report led to the U.N. General Assembly adopting a historic resolution later that year calling for referring the North to ICC and the U.N. Security Council discussing the issue for the first time. A similar General Assembly resolution was again adopted last year with calls for ICC referral.

On South Korea, the report cited problems with "government interpretation of the National Security Law, libel laws, and other laws to limit freedom of speech and expression and restrict access to the internet, and the continued jailing of conscientious objectors to military service."

In the censorship section, it also mentioned the government's decision to require middle and high schools to use only Korean history books authored by the government-affiliated National Institute of Korean History starting in the 2017 school year.

"This would end the right of schools, since 2010, to choose from a range of textbooks approved by the ministry," the report said, adding that the main opposition party filed an injection to block the government's plan.

The plan "raised concerns about academic freedom," it said.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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