The US envoy for human rights in North Korea argued yesterday that the lack of basic liberties in the communist nation was an international issue and called on the world to press Pyongyang to reform.
Jay Lefkowitz, speaking at a US-supported international conference on the issue in the South Korean capital, said a campaign to improve human rights in North Korea -- which he labeled a "deeply oppressive nation" -- would serve to boost regional stability, not shake it.
"The contrast could not be more stark. While South Korea has grown fully into a proud democracy with the rule of law, North Korea is a deeply repressive nation," Lefkowitz said.
He described a trip he took to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a heavily fortified frontier that divides the two Koreas.
"Only a short distance from here, beyond the thicket of barbed wire which I saw yesterday when I travelled up to the DMZ, lies a hidden world of hopelessness and terror," he said.
"Countries that don't give their own citizens the basic fundamental freedoms that are required under international law are very hard to trust in any capacity," he said.
"We do not threaten the peace by challenging the status quo," Lefkowitz said in his first public appearance in South Korea. "Indeed, failing to follow this path and take steps towards liberalization is a far greater risk to the long-term security and economic prosperity in the region."
Lefkowitz's remarks appeared to be have been aimed at the Seoul government, which has pursued a path of reconciliation with the North and refrained from openly criticizing the human-rights situation there. South Korean officials say their policy of maintaining stability on the divided peninsula takes precedence over public demands for improving human rights.
Chung Eui-yong, chairman of the National Assembly's foreign relations committee and a member of the governing Uri party, said the government already connected economic aid with human rights.
"Human rights and economic aid are linked, but the government has no reason to officially confirm it," he said on the sidelines of the conference.
He said Seoul sought to refrain from "unnecessarily provoking North Korea," which might react to provocation by suspending inter-Korean negotiations.
Lefkowitz, who was appointed this year to the position, has been charged with raising the human-rights issue and providing assistance to refugees fleeing the North.
North Korea has railed against any criticism of its human rights record as a US-backed effort to seek the overthrow of Kim Jong-il's regime.
The North's Minju Joson newspaper said yesterday: "The US has become loud in trumpeting that there exists a human-rights issue" in North Korea.
"This is, however, a product of its strategy to realize a regime change," the newspaper said in a commentary carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
US Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, who introduced Lefkowitz, said Washington was just seeking to urge the North to reform and live up to its obligations under the UN charter and other international treaties.
"The US has no hidden agenda in raising the issue of human rights in North Korea, we simply want to improve the living conditions of the people of North Korea," Vershbow said. "We want [North Korea] to change its policies and undertake reforms that end the hardships endured by its people."