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South Korea to Push for Human Rights Progress in North


South Korea is vowing to support a United Nations resolution criticizing North Korean human rights abuses. South Korea is vowing to support a United Nations resolution criticizing North Korean human rights abuses. In the past, South Korea said its relationship with the North was too sensitive to bring up human rights. But, as VOA's Kurt Achin reports from the South Korean capital, that is changing.

A solemn ceremony took place recently near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.

A group of North Korean defectors to the South held a traditional funeral for two-million of their former countrymen they say have died of starvation and persecution under the rule of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Defector Kim Yeong Sun, 72, performed a dance called "salpuri" - a ritual Koreans say has existed for centuries, as a way of purging sorrow and anger.

When Kim speaks of her life in the North, it becomes apparent she has plenty of both.

She says her father and mother died from malnutrition and were wrapped in a dirty cloth and thrown away. One of her sons died at the age of nine and a younger son was shot to death at 23, after being caught by Chinese police near the North Korean border. Her husband was sent to a prison where people usually serve life sentences. She says she never heard from him again.

Kim says she and her whole family spent nine years in North Korea's infamous political prison, Yoduk, on a minor, unproven political charge. She says she was forced to work from sunup to sundown and fed only a handful or so of raw corn and salt, each day.

Satellite photos of Yoduk and other North Korean camps were made public in a 2003 report, "The Hidden Gulag" by human rights investigator David Hawke.

Hawke's organization, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, says the United Nations should pressure Pyongyang into change.

"We believe that the violations in the gulag are a clear and massive crime against humanity," Hawke said.

A United Nations resolution calling for improvements in the North's human-rights performance is expected to come to a vote in the General Assembly, later this year. South Korea has vowed its support.

South Korean lawmaker Hwang Jin Ha says his country needs to be even more active on North Korean human rights.

He says South Korea needs to pass legislation calling for change on North Korean human rights policy. He says it is important to take legal action, because North Koreans are starving and suffering.

Hwang is sponsoring a bill that would compel South Korea to increase support to human rights advocacy groups and to raise the profile of human rights in its diplomatic dealings with Pyongyang.

Past South Korean governments have kept silent on North Korean human rights, in an attempt to avoid angering Pyongyang and to improve North-South ties.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in January, has been much more outspoken on the issue. Hwang, a member of Mr. Lee's conservative party, says human rights legislation could make North-South dialogue on the subject easier.

He says, if the legislation passes, South Korean officials will have to comply. In turn, they can simply tell that to North Korea. He says this could reduce the level of stress North Korean authorities feel in these discussions.

The South Korean human rights bill is expected to be voted on before the end of the year.