President Barack Obama's newly appointed special envoy for North Korean human rights is making his first visit to the South Korean capital. He urged the North to release a captive American citizen and says, if the North wants closer ties with Washington, it will need to address its human rights situation.
U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Robert King told reporters here in Seoul Monday the United States is pushing Pyongyang for details about a captive U.S. citizen believed to be Christian activist Robert Park.
"We are actively working to find out where he is being held, and to urge that he be released," he said.
Pyongyang confirmed last month it had arrested an American national for illegal entry. Fellow activists say Robert Park crossed a frozen river into the North from China on Christmas Day, December 25, to proclaim a message of Christianity and human rights.
U.S. Envoy King did not confirm the captive's identity as Park, citing State Department regulations. He says Washington is seeking updates on his condition through its "protecting power in Pyongyang," a reference to the embassy of Sweden in the North's capital.
King has been in his position for about six weeks, replacing Bush administration special envoy Jay Lefkowitz. He speaks bluntly about the North's treatment of its people.
"It one of the worst places, in terms of lack of human rights." King said. "The situation is appalling."
Human rights groups say more than 150,000 North Koreans are held in harsh labor camps, often for minor political infractions they or a family member committed. Defectors from the North report the widespread use of torture and compulsory abortions by North Korean authorities. The North prevents most of its citizens from engaging in basic market-oriented economic activity, keeping millions in a state of malnutrition.
King is meeting with key South Korean officials this week, including those representing the South at six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. He says, to normalize relations with the United States, Pyongyang will need to improve its human rights outlook.
"A relationship with the U.S. and North Korea will have to involve human rights," he said.
Meanwhile, King says Washington is interested in bringing more North Korean escapees into the United States.
"We have expressed a desire to provide an opportunity for people who want to come to the United States, who are North Koreans, to do that," he said. "There are requirements that we have, but we have tried to give instructions to our embassies to make this as easy and as available as possible... but yes, we are anxious to do that."
King is scheduled to remain in Seoul until Thursday and is expected to meet with visiting United Nations Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, Vitit Muntabhorn.