Activists to kick off U.S.-backed conference on North Korean human rights

South Korean, U.S. and other activists prepared Thursday to kick off a high-profile international conference on human rights abuses in North Korea, an event likely to anger the communist country amid the escalating standoff over its nuclear programs.

This week's meeting brings together some 700 officials, including Jay Lefkowitz, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow and Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean to defect to the South.

The gathering is organized by South Korean human rights groups and Freedom House, a pro-democracy organization partly funded by the U.S. government that held a similar meeting in Washington in July. Another session on the North's human rights is scheduled for March in Belgium.

On Thursday, defectors were expected to give testimony on abuses in the North. NK Gulag, a Seoul-based anti-North Korean group, also plans to unveil a list of 121 political prisoners held at Yodok, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Pyongyang, including five North Korean defectors whom the U.N. refugee agency recognized as refugees in Russia in 2000.

Last month, the group released a list of 34 North Korean inmates at Yodok who attempted to defect to South Korea. The group is led by prominent defector Kang Chol Hwan, author of "Aquariums of Pyongyang" about his decade of detention at the Yodok camp, who met this year with U.S. President George W. Bush.

North Korea has yet to make any direct reaction to this week's meeting but it blasted South Korea's main opposition Grand National Party on Wednesday for its recent demand that some local civic organizations stop making disparaging remarks about the meeting.

"The GNP and its principal criminals will have to pay a very high price for their frantic anti-North confrontational racket," the secretariat of the committee for the North's Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea has bristled at outside criticism of its political system and human rights conditions, calling it part of a U.S. plot to overthrow its communist regime.

The South Korean government has largely remained silent on the three-day meeting, fearing its voice could hurt North-South reconciliation efforts ahead of high-level talks next week between the Koreas _ and complicate international efforts to resolve a standoff over the North's nuclear programs, the AP reports.

The North said this week it wouldn't return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program until Washington lifts financial sanctions imposed its alleged illegal activities, such as counterfeiting. U.S. officials have said the sanction issue is a matter of law that is separate from the nuclear dispute. A.M.

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