US officials and international activists will discuss North Korea's human-rights abuses at a three-day conference in Seoul this week that is likely to embarrass the South Korean government.
US Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow and the White House special envoy on North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz, will attend, organizers said.
Invitations to officials from President Roh Moo-hyun's government to participate in the conference have been politely turned down, however.
Seoul says it is concerned about human rights in North Korea but believes that highlighting the politically sensitive issue will hurt its long-term goal of peace and reconciliation with Pyongyang.
Since South Korea launched a charm offensive advocating cooperation with North Korea in 2000, the government is reluctant to show Pyongyang in a negative light.
South Koreans are rarely exposed to criticism of the North Korean regime. Partly as a result, polls show that most young South Koreans with no memory of the Korean War see their neighbor as a poor and backward state that would never use its massive army or the nuclear weapons it claims to possess against them.
Roh has defended Seoul's position in the past and suggested in a speech on Tuesday that the issue should be handled as part of a comprehensive drive to resolve wider problems relating to North Korea.
"We should take a strategic approach on North Korea's human rights problem, handling it in a comprehensive and broad manner," Roh told advisors.
For its part North Korea rejects charges of human-rights abuses and accuses the US and its allies of using human rights as a political tool in a campaign to overthrow the government in Pyongyang.
Some activists in South Korea also suspect that human rights are being politicized by US hawks seeking the overthrow of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
"We cannot accept the official motive of the Seoul conference, which comes amid a drive by hawks in the United States to highlight North Korea's human rights record," said Cheong Wook-sik, who leads an influential group promoting reconciliation with the North.
"Talking about North Korea's human rights requires serious deliberation on its impact on inter-Korean reconciliation and six-party talks," he said.
The two Koreas are engaged in bumpy six-way talks with the US, China, Japan and Russia on how to end the North Korean nuclear standoff.
North Korea stands accused by human rights groups of operating a vast network of camps for political prisoners, employing forced labor and torture, carrying out public executions and trampling on religious and other freedoms.
Lee In-ho, a professor at Myongji University in Seoul, is a co-chairman of the conference that runs from today until Saturday and will draw more than 500 participants, according to the organizers, who include Freedom House, the US democracy and freedom advocacy group that hosted a similar conference on North Korea in Washington in July.
She said the conference will avoid politicizing the human-rights agenda in North Korea and that South Koreans have been afraid to join the international outcry against the North's rights abuses for too long.
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