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Seoul is muting criticism of North: U.S. report

Mar 15,2019
The U.S. government accused Seoul Wednesday of pressuring North Korean defectors to dial down criticism of Pyongyang as inter-Korean diplomacy accelerated last year.

The U.S. State Department’s latest report on human rights violations around the world, entitled “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018,” said defector organizations in South Korea reported coming under “direct or indirect pressure” from the South Korean government to tone down their angry rhetoric towards Pyongyang as Seoul authorities “engaged in talks” with the regime.

“This pressure allegedly included, for example, the termination of 20 years’ funding support for the Association of North Korean defectors in December 2017, the police blocking groups’ efforts to send leaflets into North Korea by balloon, and police visits to organizations and requests for information on financial and other administrative matters,” read the report.

The report also pointed out that Seoul was slow to establish the North Korean Human Rights Foundation, mandated by legislation in 2016, saying that defector organizations attributed the delay to government reluctance to criticize the North. The position of ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights had been vacant for more than a year as well, the report pointed out.

Seoul was not accused of muzzling North Korean defectors in the 2017 report.

In a press briefing on Wednesday detailing the 2018 report, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no specific mention of South Korea but generally said he hoped the revelations push governments to change course and cease engaging in brutality and other abuses.

“By issuing today’s report, we deploy the truth,” said Pompeo, “the truth about abuses occurring around the globe - as one of the most powerful weapons in America’s diplomatic arsenal.”

On North Korea, the report said human rights violations and impunity continued to be “a widespread problem” while the North Korean government took no credible steps to prosecute officials who committed those abuses, based on testimony from North Korean defectors and observers. Such issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government, forced disappearances, torture by authorities, prison camps, rigid controls over many aspects of the lives of citizens and forced labor, among others.

Michael G. Kozak, a senior official of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor said in a briefing Wednesday that the United States hasn’t noticed “any progress” on human rights in the North even as the country was engaged in dialogue with Washington.

“I think the U.S. has been in the forefront of trying to expose what North Korea is doing and bring international attention to it,” said Kozak. The U.S. is trying to get information back into North Korea, he said, so that people there can start to realize what standards are in the rest of the world.

“But it’s still one of the worst human rights situations in the world,” Kozak stressed. “It has not improved, and that’s going to be part of our effort for some time to come.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, has refrained from mentioning North Korea’s human rights situation in order not to provoke Pyongyang, which sees it as an infringement of its sovereignty. During an interview with the BBC last October, Moon said the key to improving North Korean human rights was to bring the North into contact with the outside world through cooperation with the international community and South Korea, rather than pressing the country to change its behavior.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]