As preparations are under way for another round of six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program, activists held a one-day conference in Washington Tuesday to highlight what they say is North Korea's abysmal human rights record.

The multilateral talks that are due to convene in Beijing have focused on persuading North Korea to completely abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Senator Sam Brownback said the issue of human rights should also be on the table.

"It's important that we confront this issue, and that it not be set to the side, that the discussion of human rights for North Koreans is a front and center issue, not a sidebar issue, that it's one that should be part of the six party talks," said Mr. Brownback.

Senator Brownback spoke at a daylong conference on human rights in North Korea that was organized by the non-profit democracy advocacy group, Freedom House. 

One of the featured speakers was North Korean defector Kang Chol-Hwan, who was jailed in North Korea's prison system from 1977 to 1987, starting when he was nine years old.  Mr. Kang's case was given wide attention last month after he met with President Bush at the White House.

Mr. Kang said he believes North Korea is using its nuclear weapons programs as bargaining chips with the rest of the world.  Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Kang added that Pyongyang's self-serving warnings of threats from other countries also help unify the North Korean people. 

"The North Korean regime is using the nuclear threat to blackmail the world.  And also, that brings about the solidifying of the people of North Korea," said Mr. Kang.

The keynote speaker for the Washington event was Natan Sharansky, a man who was able to draw parallels from his own time spent as a prisoner in the former Soviet Union's sprawling gulag network.

"That's why I believe that, yes, freedom is for everybody," said Mr. Sharansky.

Mr. Sharansky said improving human rights in North Korea is a crucial factor in bringing stability to that country, and, as a result, to the rest of the world.

"Those who want to bring real stability to this world, even in this difficult moment of negotiations about nuclear weapons and so on, have to understand that the freedom of people of North Korea, that is the best guarantee of stability of people in Europe and America," he added.

Another conference participant, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, said people should not fear that speaking out against human rights abuses in North Korea will make it harder to get an agreement with North Korea on its nuclear program.  He reminded the audience that Mr. Sharansky's mentor, Nobel-prize-winning scientist Andrei Sakharov, never stopped speaking out against abuses in the then-Soviet Union. 

"At a time when prominent people on both sides of the Iron Curtain warned that human rights advocacy would increase world tension and the likelihood of nuclear war, Sakharov linked the issues of human rights and peace, arguing that a country that violates the rights of its own people could not be expected to respect the rights of its neighbors.  This is the central argument in the case for democracy," he explained.

But Mr. Gershman acknowledged that there are no dissidents of Mr. Sakharov's stature inside North Korea today.

That, said former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, is why the rest of the world needs to speak out.

"And when I was in prison, I was in absolute isolation.  I didn't know what [was] happening there in the outer world," explained Mr. Sharansky.

Mr. Sharansky says Soviet dissidents would not have been able to survive and be successful if there hadn't been constant pressure from the rest of the world.