U.S. envoy says improving NKorea's human rights to boost regional security

The U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea argued Friday 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 U.S.-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. "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 pointed 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 told reporters on the sidelines of the conference. He said Seoul sought to refrain from "unnecessarily provoking North Korea," which might react by suspending inter-Korean negotiations.

Lefkowitz, whose job was created this year under a bill passed by the U.S. Congress, 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 U.S.-backed effort to seek the overthrow of Kim Jong Il's regime. But U.S. 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 U.N. charter and other international treaties.

"The U.S. government 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."

Lefkowitz said there were growing signs that more information was reaching inside the isolated North, where citizens are denied access to outside media and subjected to omnipresent propaganda glorifying the regime founded by late leader Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father. "As dark as the situation may seem today, there may be some light beginning to peer through," Lefkowitz said.

He said his office would seek to boost efforts to get information inside the North, noting that "once light begins to shine on authoritarian regimes, the march of democracy cannot be far behind,” reports the AP. I.L.

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