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US Envoy Calls for More Attention to North Korea's Rights Record

The White House's special envoy for human rights in North Korea is calling for greater U.S. attention to Pyongyang's human rights record, which is not within the scope of the six party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

Under the February 13 agreement on the North Korean nuclear program, one of the various working groups provided for will focus on the eventual normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea.

In testimony to a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Thursday, Special Envoy Jay Lefkowitz indicated that there are obstacles to normalization. He said Washington is concerned with what he described as Pyongyang's "abysmal human rights record." "If the North Korean government wants to be seen as legitimate by the international community, and certainly by the United States, it will have to make progress on human rights. We believe a discussion on human rights should take place prior to a full normalization of relations," he said.

Lefkowitz said Pyongyang has "taken no significant steps" to improve human rights for North Koreans since he testified to Congress last April. He called North Korea one of the world's worst human rights abusers and accused Pyongyang of ignoring the rights of free speech, worship, assembly, press, fair trial and emigration for its 23 million people.

"There are anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans who live in a vast network of political concentration camps. And let's not sugar-coat the conditions in which these people live. They are concentration camps," he said.

Lefkowitz said he is concerned about mass starvation. He pointed to a food shortage crisis in the country in the 1990's, and said there are indications that North Korea could again suffer what he described as "acute" famine conditions in coming months. He added that international donors are willing to help, but want to know that their humanitarian aid actually benefits the North Korean people.

"But as with humanitarian aid anywhere in the world, we must insist on minimum international standards for monitoring, and for distribution, in order to ensure, reasonably, that it reaches those for whom it is intended. We suspect, strongly suspect, North Korea of diverting foreign assistance to its military, to the elite and to the black market," he said.

The North Korea Human Rights Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004, mandated Washington offer North Korean refugees asylum and other assistance. Lefkowitz emphasized that Washington has placed no limit on the number of North Koreans it is willing to accept for resettlement, but acknowledged that the actual numbers are small. His written statement reported a total of 18 North Korean refugees in the United States. His appearance on Capitol Hill coincided with an Associated Press report that a group of 12 North Korean refugees arrived in the United States this week, which would bring the total number to 30.

Meanwhile, Lefkowitz pointed out that President Bush has requested $2 million in his budget for fiscal year 2008 specifically for the promotion of North Korean human rights. He added that the U.S. government has also requested $8 million to increase Korean-language broadcasting by the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.