A new South Korean report reinforces accusations that North Korea is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. Its release this week comes as U.S. Christian groups seek to push Washington into putting North Korea's human rights on the table when multinational nuclear weapons talks resume later this month.
More than 250 university students packed into a Seoul auditorium Thursday, for a rally seeking to "Change North Korea." That slogan, written in English, was on the bright orange T-shirts they wore.
Kim Ee-kwan heads the group, which calls itself Students for North Korean Democracy.
Mr. Kim says South Korea needs to be more outspoken with North Korea about its abuse of human rights.
He organized the rally following this week's release of a report by South Korea's National Human Rights Commission, or NHRC, on widespread abuses in North Korea. They include forced abortions, public executions and human trafficking. None of the findings are new, but the fact that they come from the NHRC is reigniting a debate about Seoul's position toward North Korea.
The NHRC is government funded but independent from government direction. Commission officials say the report, based on the testimony of recent North Korean defectors, was compiled for internal reference only. The commission in general has been silent about North Korean human rights since its formation in 2001.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and his administration have also been silent on the subject of North Korea's human rights record under his policy of reconciliation with Pyongyang. South Korea has abstained from United Nations votes calling on North Korea to improve its human rights practices.
Huh Kang-il, director of human rights and social welfare at South Korea's Foreign Ministry, says confronting Pyongyang has only failed in the past.
Mr. Huh says South Korean authorities have deep concerns about the terrible human rights situation in the North. However, he says the only way to improve it is through patience and increased cooperation.
Economists say another factor motivates South Korea's gradual approach. A sudden collapse of the Pyongyang regime would cost Seoul hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild the North's crumbled economy and avoid social turmoil.
Christians in both South Korea and the United States are pushing the issue of North Korean human rights. Deborah Fikes, the director of the influential Midland Ministerial Alliance, put together an exhibit called "North Korean Genocide" at a recent Christian music gathering in Texas. She says the North's rights record pulls together Christians of all regions and denominations.
"We've found our common ground, because the Gospels command us to be concerned," said Deborah Fikes.
Ms. Fikes says the issue is relevant to multinational talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, because it reflects on Pyongyang's credibility.
"You cannot negotiate with a government that you can't trust," she said. "You just cannot trust a government that would treat their people in such a manner."
Ms. Fikes says her organization does not explicitly call for regime change in North Korea.
"We actually pray that such a miracle would happen that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il himself would realize the only way he is going to survive is realizing that human rights is much more important in the international community than maybe he had previously calculated," said Deborah Fikes.
Ms. Fikes' organization makes no secret of its links with President Bush, who is also an evangelical Christian. But she says her group did not push Mr. Bush to invite author and North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan to the White House for a meeting in June.
Douglas Shin, a Korean-American pastor, escorted Mr. Kang on his latest trip to the United States. He says U.S. Christians are fervent about North Korean human rights-with President Bush playing a key role.
"They said President Bush has the vision," said Douglas Shin. "We are the tools to carry out that vision. So it's almost like following Christ - through Bush."
A number of human rights activists say they expect the Bush administration to name a special envoy for North Korean human rights before nuclear talks resume later this month. The envoy is a provision of the North Korean Rights Act, which Congress passed last year. The act is viewed as a sign of a broadening U.S. consensus that Pyongyang's human rights must be addressed soon.