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S. Korea Cites 'Unique' Relations With North in Silence on Human Rights Vote

Advocacy groups are criticizing South Korea for abstaining from a United Nations resolution that expressed concern over human rights abuses in North Korea. The South's decision to abstain comes a year after Seoul supported a nearly identical measure. But as VOA's Kurt Achin reports from the South Korean capital, South Korean authorities find themselves in a delicate position this year.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, Cho Hee-young, says his country's decision to abstain from the U.N. human rights resolution needs to be seen in a broader context. He says Seoul did not participate in the vote "in consideration of North-South Korean relations."

The resolution, which was passed by a United Nations human rights panel Tuesday, expresses "very serious concern" about reports of human rights abuses in the North.

Pyongyang has refused for years to allow a special U.N. researcher to enter the country. Nevertheless, U.N. authorities say there is credible evidence of widespread abuses by the North, including torture, forced abortion, and sentencing of entire families to labor camps for even minor political crimes.

South Korea supported a nearly identical U.N. measure last year, at a very tense moment. Just weeks earlier, North Korea had conducted its first nuclear weapons test, despite warnings from around the globe not to do so.

But relations between the two Koreas have warmed since then, as Pyongyang has demonstrated cooperation with multinational efforts to end its nuclear weapons programs. Last month, the second meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas, which are still technically at war, took place in the North Korean capital.

Officials are now working out details of a new range of North-South joint projects. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun says he is hoping for a formal declaration of inter-Korean peace in the near future, more than 57 years after the North invaded the South.

Since the North began preliminary steps to end its nuclear programs, South Korea has resumed a policy of aid and cooperation with Pyongyang that began after the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. It has also avoided any comments that might irritate North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Kay Seok, Seoul-based spokeswoman for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, says regardless of political developments, South Korea is wrong to send an inconsistent message about the North's abuses.

"On North Korea, there's really no dispute that the human rights situation is really abysmal," she says, "and countries should not... abstain from a human rights resolution based on other political reasons."

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector who heads a group advocating democracy in the North, is also disappointed by Seoul's turnaround. He says it is an insult to the North Korean people that South Korea treats their freedom and human rights as a matter of politics.

The human rights resolution is scheduled to be voted on by the full U.N. General Assembly in the near future.