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New US Envoy Says North Korea Must Improve Human Rights

The Bush administration's new special envoy on human rights in North Korea said Thursday Pyongyang must make progress on human rights if it wants international legitimacy. The envoy, Jay Lefkowitz, also raised the prospect of linking humanitarian aid to North Korea to human rights progress.

The post was mandated by an act of Congress in 2004, but it was filled only this week with Mr. Lefkowitz's appointment. He was previouisly a White House domestic policy adviser.

At an introductory news conference at the State Department, Mr. Lefkowitz called North Korea one of the most repressive countries in the world, but nonetheless said he hoped to engage officials of the communist government in a direct human rights dialogue.

The new special envoy said North Korea has made it clear at nuclear arms talks and elsewhere that it wants legitimacy and respect, and said the way for Pyongyang to achieve this is to address international concerns about its rights record. "I think if the North Koreans at any point in time want legitimacy, if they want to be respected as a member of the international community, making progress on human rights is an absolute necessity. It is really the sine qua none of how we judge other legitimate nations," he said.

Mr. Lefkowitz, a former U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, said North Korea holds an estimated 200,000 political detainees in facilities he described as concentration camps, where he said prisoners are subject to torture, starvation and exposure.

He said another focus of U.S. concern are North Korean refugees, perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands, living under difficult circumstances in neighboring areas of northern China.

The new U.S. envoy, who formally took office Tuesday, said he hoped to work on the issue with key U.S. allies, international organizations and non-governmental groups.

He said under questioning it was premature to talk about incentives or penalties that might be brought to bear to influence Pyongyang, but he pointedly would not rule out the possibility of linking humanitarian aid to North Korean behavior on human rights. "North Korea is clearly a significant recipient of international aid, point number one. Point number two: there's no question that we want to see progress in terms of their human rights record. And number three, I think consistent with what the President's overall approach is to human rights and to bringing, ideally, North Korea into the community of nations, we have to take a look at all different areas of our relationship with North Korea," he said.

The United States has been the largest single provider of food aid to North Korea in recent years, notably during that country's flood-related agricultural crisis in the 1990's.

Officials of successive U.S. administrations say decisions on food aid have been based strictly on need, as determined by the United Nations, and unrelated to political issues with Pyongyang.

Mr. Lefkowitz said he was unconcerned about suggestions his mission might complicate six-party negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program, which resume next week in Beijing.

He said he had discussed the issue with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and key U.S. negotiators in the nuclear talks and said he was pleased to find that his human rights efforts have their "unconditional support."

Mr. Lefkowitz said the human rights situation for the more than 20 million North Koreans is intolerable and said his mission to help them is "morally unambiguous."