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S. Korean Human Rights Watchdog Says It Will Probe Abuses in North

South Korea's Human Rights Commission says it will investigate human rights abuses in North Korea. The move is a departure from the past, when the commission has focused almost exclusively on issues within South Korea's borders. The probe is the latest sign of a shifting South Korean policy climate since the inauguration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.

The South Korean National Human Rights Commission says the formal investigation of abuses within North Korea's borders will get underway next month. Cho Young-guk, senior policy researcher at the commission, says North Korean defectors in the South will be the main source of information.

Cho says there are about 13,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. He says it would be too time-consuming and costly to do thorough interviews with all of them. Instead, researchers will consult a sample group of the North Korean population.

North Korea is widely considered to be one of the world's worst abusers of its own citizens' human rights. United Nations-appointed special researcher Vitit Muntabhorn told the U.N. Human Rights council this month, the North makes "extensive use of torture and public executions." His report also criticized the imprisonment of entire families under what he calls "appalling" conditions.

At least 100,000 North Korean escapees are believed to have crossed into China, having fled political persecution and severe food shortages. Cho says the Human Rights Commission's probe will draw upon their testimony.

He says, when necessary, the commission will delegate some work to private companies, including researchers outside of South Korea. He says the information is needed, because his researchers will not be allowed in to North Korea.

South Korea's National Human Rights Commission is an independent organization which was established seven years ago. It has focused most of its efforts on human rights topics within South Korea. Although it has done some general research on broad North Korean human rights issues, this probe is the commission's first explicit attempt to shed light on human rights abuses within North Korea, itself.

Lee Young-hwan is a North Korean defector who represents the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, here in Seoul. He says the investigation is a welcome step forward.

He says previous research by the commission has always been somewhat superficial, relying on experts. He says he quality of the research will be greatly improved by including the voice of North Korean defectors.

The commission's decision to launch this probe was made much easier by a shift in South Korea's political climate, following the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak. Mr. Lee has pledged a more proactive and vocal policy on North Korean human rights abuses than his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun. The Roh administration pursued a policy of peacefully engaging North Korea and maintained near-total public silence on its human rights issues.

Kim Young-hyun, a North Korea researcher at Seoul's Dongguk University, says the commission's probe may well anger Pyongyang.

Independent or not, Kim says the National Human Rights Commission is a reflection of South Korea's government. He says it is highly likely North Korea will voice its opposition to the probe in a diplomatic setting, such as a North-South ministerial meeting. He describes Pyongyang as "allergic" to any outside investigation of its human rights issues, which the North views as interference in its internal affairs.