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UN Probe on Rights Abuses Motivates North Korean Outreach

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides field guidance to the Jongsong Pharmaceutical General Factory, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, November 8, 2014.

North Korea recently released two detained Americans, raising questions about what was behind the outreach to Washington. VOA's Brian Padden reports from Seoul that analysts say the abrupt move was likely aimed at trying to undermine a move backed by the United States to prosecute high level officials before the International Criminal Court for committing human-rights abuses.

U.S. officials say U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper made no concessions when he met with North Korean officials to negotiate the release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. The two had been sentenced to years of hard labor for committing what the North characterized as “hostile” acts against the regime.

Afterwards U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki reiterated that the U.S. position on North Korea remains unchanged. She said Washington still supports a U.N. resolution to prosecute North Korean officials for human rights crimes in the International Criminal Court.

“Nothing has changed about our concerns about North Korea’s… abysmal human rights record. Nothing has changed about our concerns about their nuclear aspirations and capabilities,” said Psaki.

The United Nations is expected to vote soon to prosecute North Korean officials for crimes against humanity. An independent U.N. commission has documented North Korean political prisons holding more than 100,000 people and atrocities including murder, enslavement, torture, rape, and forced abortions.

Professor Yang Moo-jin with the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said Pyongyang has made fighting this U.N. effort a priority and released the two Americans in hopes of getting the United States or other countries to soften their stance.

He said what North Korea really needs at the moment is for the human rights issue against North Korea at the U.N. to be resolved. He added tjat North Korea must also prevent Kim Jong Un’s name from being mentioned on the issue.

Joanna Hosaniak with Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights said the release of the prisoners and a recent invitation to the U.N. human rights envoy to visit North Korea are part of an engagement strategy to show how the Kim Jong Un regime is making an effort to change. But she said so far, what they delivered are minor issues and not enough to demonstrate that the repressive system is changing.

“If they started to release political prisoners then I would assume there would be some negotiations for that in order to give them guarantees because they are doing real efforts. We don’t see this real effort,” said Hosaniak.

While human rights activists support engaging North Korea in negotiations to change its behavior, they say those that commit human rights abuses must be held accountable.

The United States says it will not engage with North Korea until it takes concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament. It has not set similar criteria for progress on human rights and, Hosaniak said, that is a concern.

“Unfortunately, the nuclear issues are overshadowing the human rights and it shouldn’t be like that because of that we have allowed North Korea to continue [these] human rights crimes for such a long time and with total impunity,” said Hosaniak.

In advance of the U.N. vote on referring the case against the North to the International Criminal Court, both a U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights and a top United Nations human rights investigator have traveled to Seoul this week. They are meeting with government officials and some North Korean defectors who have given testimony about the dire human rights conditions in North Korea.

VOA News Producer in Seoul Youmi Kim contributed to this report.