December 8, 2005

U.S. envoy on N.Korean rights paints bleak picture

By Jon Herskovitz and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - The U.S. special envoy for human rights
in North Korea called the state "a hidden world of hopelessness
and terror" on Friday and said Pyongyang's treatment of its
citizens was a global concern.

Jay Lefkowitz, who earlier this year took up the new post
of Washington's point man on North Korean human rights, said
the only way for Pyongyang to claim legitimacy was for it to
ensure human rights for its citizens.

Lefkowitz, speaking at a rights conference in Seoul, noted
North and South Korea were under authoritarian rule after the
1950-1953 Korean War. As South Korea embraced democracy, free
markets and human rights, its economy grew to become one of the
strongest in the world, he said.

"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.

The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), a heavily fortified frontier,
divides the two Koreas.

"Only a short distance from here, beyond the thicket of
barbed wire, which I saw yesterday when I traveled up to the
DMZ, lies a hidden world of hopelessness and terror," he said.

Many at the first day of the conference on Thursday
criticised South Korea for not taking an aggressive stand to
press Pyongyang on its human rights record.

Human rights groups describe North Korea as one of the
worst places in the world, with a network of prison camps,
guilt by association and public executions meant to intimidate
its citizens.

South Korea's government argues it does work to improve
human rights but prefers not to make it a high-profile topic
for fear of aggravating Pyongyang.

"I am aware that many in South Korea are wary that calling
for greater human rights for North Korea is proxy for other
aims, or an excuse to isolate and antagonise North Korea's
sovereignty," Lefkowitz said.

North Korea has criticised the appointment of Lefkowitz,
saying his work casts a shadow over six-party talks aimed at
ending its nuclear weapons programmes.

North Korea typically brands criticism of its human rights
record as part of a U.S. conspiracy to topple its government.