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Rights Activists Criticize Seoul's Stance on North Korean Human Rights


Human rights activists are sharply criticizing South Korea's decision to abstain from a United Nations vote on North Korean human rights. The U.N. vote sheds light on a key philosophical divide in South Korea about dealing with the North.

South Korea has abstained for the third year in a row from voting on a United Nations resolution criticizing North Korea on its human rights performance. Officials in Seoul say the government declined to vote because of the special nature of the North-South relationship, and wants to avoid provoking authorities in Pyongyang.

The resolution, put forward by the European Union, expresses "deep concern" about reports of "grave and widespread" abuses in North Korea, including torture, imprisonment without trial, human trafficking, and forced abortions. It passed Thursday by 30 votes to nine in Geneva.

Conservative lawmaker Kim Moon-soo is a vocal critic of Seoul's policy on North Korean human rights. He calls the decision to abstain from the vote "shameful and regrettable."

Mr. Kim says North Koreans, who according to the constitution are automatically citizens of South Korea, deserve better from leaders in Seoul.

South Korea's dominant Uri party, to which President Roh Moo-hyun belongs, embraces a policy of engagement and reconciliation with the North. Uri members say the best path to improving North Korean human rights is to bring about gradual economic transformation in the impoverished country.

Gang Il-huh, of South Korea's Foreign Ministry, says the government has learned from previous unsuccessful strategies of confrontation with its Stalinist neighbor.

Mr. Gang says the unique relationship between the two Koreas makes cooperation the best form of leverage for bringing about change in the North.

Benjamin Yoon of the Seoul group the Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights says South Korea should be part of the international momentum building on the issue. He points out that the European Union and several other governments have taken the initiative to push the North to improve its treatment of its people.

Mr. Yoon says North Korea would have no reason to criticize Seoul for backing the resolution within the framework of the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

North Korean defector Park Gwang Il is even more outspoken in criticizing Seoul's policy.

In an emotional public appearance recently, Mr. Park asked whether North Koreans should simply continue to die while South Korea supports the government of the North's leader, Kim Jong Il. He says he cannot understand the true nature of the South Korean government.

This is the third time that the 53-member Human Rights Commission has addressed North Korea's abuses. This year's resolution includes reappointing Thai law professor Vitit Munthaborn as the U.N. special rapporteur on the issue.

North Korea rejects Professor Vitit's mandate and has refused him access to the country. If that does not change in the year ahead, human rights activists say they hope the U.N. Security Council or General Assembly will act on the matter.