Conference on North Korean human rights

International activists kicked off a high-profile conference Thursday on human rights abuses in North Korea by accusing Pyongyang of enslaving its people and calling for the overthrow of Kim Jong Il's regime. 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 conference "will serve as an occasion for raising human rights awareness of the 23 million North Koreans who are suffering the worst human rights violations, and for dealing a fatal blow to Kim Jong Il's dictatorship," Hwang said at the opening of the event in the South Korean capital. "North Korea is sparing no efforts to abolish people's conscious needs for human rights and to make them spiritual slaves of the supreme leader," he said.

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

The South Korean government has largely remained silent on the three-day conference, fearing its voice could hurt North-South reconciliation efforts ahead of high-level bilateral talks next week, and also complicate international efforts to resolve the standoff over the North's nuclear programs. Seoul's stance has drawn criticism at the conference.

In a separate meeting with South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Chun Young-woo, the U.S. envoy Lefkowitz called on Seoul to be more actively engaged in improving the North's human rights record, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Lefkowitz said South Korea should link humanitarian aid deliveries to the North to the human rights issue, while Chun stressed the need for balance with the government's policy goal being the establishment of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, according to the ministry. South Korean Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo told reporters that Seoul's policy would "naturally take priority over public demand for improvement of North Korea's human rights record." "The government will try to help the North Korean government improve its human rights situation by itself," he said, according to the Unification Ministry. "Our government has serious concerns about North Korea's human rights situation and has a clear position on this."

At the conference, Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, a Washington-based conservative policy group, called the North's Kim "the worst violator of human rights in the world today", citing the deaths caused by his policies, involvement in drug trafficking and counterfeiting, kidnappings of South Korean and Japanese citizens and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, informs the AP. N.U.

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