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South Korea to Back UN Investigation of Human Rights in North Korea


South Korea is reversing three years of looking the other way on North Korean human rights abuses, saying it will back a United Nations resolution that calls on Pyongyang in strong terms to improve its human rights record. The change of policy comes after North Korea flouted warnings from Seoul and other governments not to conduct nuclear and missile tests - and as a South Korean prepares to assume the U.N.'s top job.

Song Min-soon, South Korea's incoming foreign minister, told lawmakers Thursday that North Korea's recent provocations influenced Seoul's decision to back the upcoming United Nations resolution.

Song says South Korean authorities considered the North's missile tests in July and nuclear weapons test in October in making their judgment.

Seoul has abstained from three previous U.N. resolutions on North Korea's human rights record, citing the South's special relationship with Pyongyang. Since 2000, the South has embraced a policy of non-confrontational engagement with the North, even though the two remain technically at war.

Like the last two resolutions on the subject, this week's statement is based on reporting by a special U.N. rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. A draft text of the resolution calls on Pyongyang to halt abuses, and lists torture, arbitrary imprisonment and the use of forced labor along with many other suspected human rights violations.

The draft resolution describes the North's restriction of basic freedoms as "severe and all-pervasive."

Unlike previous resolutions, this measure would require the U.N. Secretary-General to personally submit a report on North Korea's human rights situation to the General Assembly.

Ban Ki-moon, the former South Korean foreign minister, is due to assume the secretary-general's post later this year, and he would be responsible for delivering the report.

Ban recently urged his home country to take what he called a more "positive" approach toward the North Korea human rights issue.

Kay Seok is a researcher for the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch. She welcomes South Korea's decision to support the resolution, and the influence Ban Ki-moon apparently had on that decision.

She says once Seoul adds its voice to international concerns about human rights in the North, it will not be able to return to silence in the future - because the international community will expect more.

South Korea's decision to support the resolution comes two days after Seoul announced it would not take any new steps to enforce a U.N. Security Council measure punishing North Korea for its nuclear test.

The U.N. resolution is expected to come to a vote in New York on Thursday.

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