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Seoul Stands Firm on Ties with Pyongyang

South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young on Monday told lawmakers there would be no change in Seoul's policy of engagement with Pyongyang.

Last week, North Korea announced that it possessed nuclear weapons, and that it was withdrawing indefinitely from multilateral talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs.

Mr. Chung, the South's top policymaker on North Korea, says the North's statements are probably just an attempt to gain leverage before eventually returning to the negotiations.

Mr. Chung says the North probably has enough plutonium to make one or two nuclear weapons, but says it is too early to call North Korea a nuclear state. He says North Korea has never conducted a nuclear test.

The United States wants Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, and Japan is threatening the North with economic sanctions.

But Mr. Chung and other members of South Korea's ruling Uri party support a policy of promoting gradual, positive change in North Korea through economic ties, as opposed to confrontational rhetoric on such issues as nuclear weapons and human rights.

Scholars and activists meeting in Seoul criticized that approach Monday, at the opening of an international conference on North Korean human rights. The delegates implied that in its eagerness to deal with Pyongyang, the South Korean government is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in the North.

The conference was shown a documentary comparing North Korean prison camps with the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to be in such camps, many of them for minor political crimes.

Heo Man-Ho, of South Korea's Kyungpook National University, told the conference Seoul must make economic aid to Pyongyang conditional on human rights improvements.

Mr. Heo says South Korea must take care it is not trapped into condoning North Korea's human rights abuses.

About six thousand North Koreans have succeeded in defecting to South Korea since the Korean War of the 1950s, and authorities here say more and more are arriving each year after fleeing hunger and political persecution at home. At least 100,000 North Korean refugees are believed to be hiding in China.