US 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 people.
Although North and South Korea were both under
authoritarian rule after the 1950-1953 Korean War, the South
embraced democracy, free markets and human rights and its
economy grew to become one of the world’s strongest, Lefkowitz
told a rights conference in Seoul.
“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.
He described a trip he took to the Demilitarised Zone
(DMZ), a heavily fortified frontier that divides the two
“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.
Human rights groups describe North Korea as one of the
world’s worst abusers, with 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.
Lefkowitz told a news conference later that human rights in
North Korea reflect on the country’s diplomatic standing.
“Countries that don’t give their own citizens the basic
fundamental freedoms that are required under international law
are very hard to trust in any capacity,” he said.
North Korea has criticized the appointment of Lefkowitz,
saying his work casts a shadow over six-party talks aimed at
ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs, and it labeled the
human rights conference a “charade.”
“The rally was a product of an extremely sinister political
plot of unsavory forces, including the U.S., keen on the
anti-DPRK smear campaign to fabricate sheer lies about the
human rights performance in the DPRK in a bid to hype it as an
‘institutional problem’ and internationalize it,” its KCNA news
“Such stupid guys who bark at the moon cannot know about
the DPRK till their death,” KCNA said of its human rights
North Korea typically brands criticism of its human rights
record as part of a U.S. conspiracy to topple its government.
DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic
People’s Republic of Korea.
The U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow,
said Washington had no hidden agenda. “We simply want to
improve the living conditions of the people of North Korea,” he
Some at the conference pointed out the conspicuous absence
of any speeches by officials from South Korean President Roh
A former interpreter for the United States who has been in
the room for many diplomatic meetings over the years between
officials from Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington said South Korea
was trying to use quiet diplomacy on the rights issue.
“Everybody agrees on the (human rights) policy objectives.
It is just a matter of how we get there. This is where
Washington and Seoul do not agree,” said Tong Kim, who is now a
research professor at Korea University.
But a prominent member of parliament from South Korea’s
main opposition Grand National Party said quick action was
needed. “While South Korea engages in quiet diplomacy, the
people of North Korea and the refugees (in China) are dying
quietly,” said Kim Min-soo.