By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Nov. 1 (Yonhap) -- Human rights should not be separate from denuclearization talks with North Korea, the head of an international human rights watchdog said, calling for active efforts to deal with the uncomfortable but critical issue in negotiations with the reclusive state.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, emphasized that North Korea should also need to improve its human rights record itself if it really wants to join international institutions and develop its economy with foreign investment.
"We wouldn't have the nuclear problem if there was not severe repression in North Korea," Roth told Yonhap News Agency in an interview in Seoul on Wednesday.
"Kim Jong-un would not be able to divert the huge resources needed to build the nuclear program from the impoverished people ... if it were not for the fact that they are not able to protest, they are not able to speak up," he added. "Human rights violations are an integral part of nuclear threat and it is a mistake to divorce the two."
Roth is in Seoul to release the New York-based nonprofit organization's report on sexual violence against women in North Korea on Thursday. He will stay here until Saturday.
He said that sexual violence is one of the most serious human rights violations in North Korea and that it has not drawn as much attention as prison camps and other abuses but noted that it could be an easy one to change.
"(Sexual violence) affects many, many women and it would be easy to change. Stopping rape would not threaten the government's grip on power. Stopping rape does not mean regime change," he said. "The government doesn't stop the rape because it doesn't care, and we want to change that."
What is troubling, he said, in documenting sexual violence in North Korea is the low level of awareness among women about rape and other human rights violations against them.
"Most shocking is that many of the women didn't even think of themselves as having been raped ... They are pulled aside and basically ordered to provide sexual services. In most places, that would be considered rape," he said.
"They felt that it was just a transaction and what they needed to do to survive in the marketplace. It illustrates how deeply entrenched the impunity is for government officials to exploit women sexually," he added.
He said that addressing the human rights issue would do good for the North Korean regime as well if its leader Kim really intends to give up its nuclear program and focus on economic development.
"While denuclearization is going to be a long-term process at best, things can be done through economic exchange to reduce tensions," he said.
"It would be extremely difficult for South Korean companies to do business in North Korea if North Korea doesn't improve its human rights record. How can a company build a factory if its workers are going to be forced to work or women might be pulled into the backroom and raped?"
He said if North Korea wants to join international institutions, it could also be a good opportunity for South Korea to coax its regime to improve its human rights record.
"President Moon (Jae-in) has told us that Kim Jong-un wants to join international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This is an opportunity to explain to the North Korean government that it can't do that without also joining global standards," he said.
Roth expressed disappointment about the conspicuous absence of discussion on the miserable human rights situation in North Korea during a series of summit meetings between the two Koreas.
He even called President Moon's low-key stance on human rights "disappointing" and "short-sighted" and said that it is also "unusual" not to have a chance to see him during his trip here.
"I have come to South Korea not simply to release this report (on sexual violence against women in North Korea) but also to meet with the government," he said.
"We met with Foreign Minister Kang. We met with the vice minister of unification. We asked to meet President Moon but he said no. That's unusual."
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