The U.S. special envoy to multiparty talks with North Korea on its suspected nuclear weapons program says Washington is also pressing Pyongyang on violations of human rights in the country. 

Joseph DeTrani says the plight of North Koreans is not being forgotten, amid efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.

"Promotion of human rights has long been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy and we have voiced, in both bilateral and multilateral for a, our concerns for the very serious human rights situation in North Korea," he said.  "Passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act was reinforced not only to the North Koreans but also to the countries in the region that human rights must be a priority even as we work to resolve the nuclear threat from the DPRK."

In passing the North Korean Human Rights Act last year, Congress underlined its dissatisfaction with China's treatment of North Koreans fleeing across the border.

The law is sharply critical of Beijing.  It requires U.S. government reports on the treatment of North Koreans in China, whether they are receiving effective access to United Nations personnel, and whether China is meeting obligations under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

The issue emerged again in Thursday's joint hearing of two House subcommittees assessing implementation of the act.

Congressman Chris Smith has been one of the sharpest critics of Chinese policy regarding North Korean refugees:

"Contrary to the China's obligations as a signatory to the U.N. refugee convention, it hunts down North Koreans and forcibly returns them into the hands of North Korean authorities," said Mr. Smith.  "Of those returnees, most are imprisoned, many are tortured, some are executed."

Congressman Steve Chabot had this comment.

"China ought to be ashamed because they could have real influence on North Korea and what happens there, and they have done very little," said Mr. Chabot.  "They have done some, but not nearly enough, and I hold them especially accountable."

Ann Buwalda is U.S. director for the London-based human rights group Jubilee Campaign. 

"There is no other country that the international community would so quietly stand by and tolerate such a blatant and systematic violation of its treaty obligations, as has been committed by China," she added. 

Ms. Buwalda asserts that Russia too has been violating treaty obligations regarding North Korean refugees, and says more needs to be done to ensure recognition of refugee status and protection in countries serving as "discreet" exit routes.

Special U.S. envoy DeTrani and other officials were pressed by lawmakers to detail what steps Washington is taking to work for better treatment of refugees in China. 

Arthur Dewey, assistant secretary of state for refugees, makes clear China is not the only challenge.

"While some countries in Asia have been willing to allow for the discreet transit of North Koreans to Seoul through their territories, none has welcomed North Koreans for permanent resettlement," he noted.  "Governments hosting North Korean refugees, particularly in China and others in Southeast Asia oppose direct U.S. funded humanitarian assistance and refugee admissions programs for North Koreans on their territories."

Mr. Dewey says reasons for this reluctance include fear of attracting more visible numbers of North Koreans, and the desire to preserve their relationships with Pyongyang.  He adds the United States is not accepting no for an answer, and will continue to raise these issues with Asian governments.