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South Korean Envoy Signals Shift in North Korea Human Rights Policy

By Kurt Achin
04 March 2008

South Korea President Lee Myung-bak's administration is calling for improvement in North Korea's human rights situation and pledging cooperation with the United Nations on the issue. The move is a departure from previous administrations, which kept silent on North Korean human rights abuses to avoid irritating Pyongyang. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.

As he has promised to do, newly inaugurated South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is raising the profile the South's policy toward North Korean human rights abuses.

Park In-kook, Mr. Lee's deputy foreign minister for international organizations and global issues, spoke to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Monday in Geneva. He says it is time for North Korea - formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - to make some changes.

"The Republic of Korea, underscoring human rights as a universal value, calls upon the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to take appropriate measures to address the international community's concern that the human rights situation in the DPRK has not improved," Park said.

Independent research indicates North Korea has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Scholars say hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are in labor camps - often because they or a family member committed a minor political offense. Cases of public executions and forced abortions are also reported to be frequent.

Park's U.N. comments are a sharp departure from the positions of two previous South Korean administrations, which pursued a policy of near-total public silence on North Korea's human rights situation.

That approach - part of what is known as the "sunshine" or engagement policy - views the North-South relationship as unique and requiring sensitive handling. Supporters of the policy say peacefully engaging the North is more effective, in the long run, than confrontation in bringing about change.

Under the policy, South Korea has abstained on several United Nations votes calling on North Korea to improve its human rights practices. Deputy Foreign Minister Park indicated in his Geneva speech Seoul may be willing to support such measures in the future.

"The council should be equipped with appropriate mechanisms to effectively respond to persistent and gross violations of human rights," he said. "Country-specific resolutions are the mechanism designed to best serve this function, by urging the U.N. system and the country concerned to take appropriate actions."

Human rights organizations are praising the apparent policy shift. They say Park's reference to human rights as a universal value is a hopeful sign that South Korea's human rights policies can be formed, independently of other political concerns. Kay Seok represents Human Rights Watch here in Seoul.

"If I had read this statement without knowing it was from the South Korean government, and if I had read it two weeks ago, I would have thought it was from a human rights organization," Kay said.

President Lee has said South Korea's Unification Ministry, Seoul's main policy body on North Korea, will soon have a special office dedicated to scrutinizing the North's human rights practices.

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