Obama calls for human rights record improvement in N. Korea

September 24, 2010 12:34 pm 

By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, Sept. 24 (PNA/Yonhap) — U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday denounced the North Korean government for enslaving its people, calling for improvement in human rights conditions in the world's most isolated country.

"Human rights have never gone unchallenged, not in any of our nations, and not in our world," Obama told the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York in a speech televised nationwide. "Tyranny is still with us, whether it manifests itself in the Taliban killing girls who try to go to school, a North Korean regime that enslaves its own people, or armed groups in Congo-Kinshasa that use rape as a weapon of war."

The remarks came just days before a meeting of the representatives of the North's ruling Workers Party, scheduled for Tuesday — the first such gathering since 1980 — apparently to anoint North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Jong-un, as heir.

The meeting, originally set for early this month, was delayed for unknown reasons. The delay could relate to Kim Jong-il's worsening health or a lack of consensus on giving a major party post to the 27-year-old son as a prelude to an unprecedented third-generation power transition in a communist state.

Obama compared the two Koreas with a reference to the meeting of leaders of the world's top 20 economies, scheduled for Nov. 11-12 in Seoul.

"I'll join the G-20 meeting on the Korean Peninsula, which provides the world's clearest contrast between a society that is dynamic and open and free, and one that is imprisoned and closed," he said, adding he is also visiting India, Indonesia and Japan on his way to Seoul.

Obama said improvements in human rights should be preconditions for North Korean and other "tyrannical" governments to be friends with the U.S.

"We stand up for universal values because it is the right thing to do," Obama said. "But we also know from experience that those who defend these values for their people have been our closest friends and allies, while those who have denied those rights, whether terrorist groups or tyrannical governments, have chosen to be our adversaries.

An annual human right report released by the State Department in March said that North Korea's human rights record remains "deplorable" under an "absolute" dictatorship by reclusive leader Kim.

Obama earlier this month issued a memorandum to withhold certain funding from North Korea and several other countries, designated under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as "Tier 3 countries," for fiscal year 2011 "until such governments comply with the minimum standards or make significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance."

Among the countries are Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Kuwait, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

The U.S. government has imposed financial sanctions and a ban on humanitarian aid on Tier 3 countries for two straight years. North Korea has been on the list since 2003.

Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, early this month said better U.S.-North Korea ties depend on improvement in Pyongyang's record.

King said in January that the U.S. will raise North Korea's human rights record in future six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

However, the State Department has said King will not be part of the U.S. delegation to the nuclear talks, a policy consistent with that of the Bush administration, which did not want to jeopardize the fragile multilateral forum.

The nuclear talks have been deadlocked since early last year, when Pyongyang boycotted them due to U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests.

Conditions worsened in recent months over the sinking of a South Korean warship, which Seoul blames on Pyongyang despite the North's denial.

Earlier in the day, Obama met with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

The leaders did not discuss North Korea, said Jeffrey Bader, senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

"Economic issues, unsurprisingly, dominated the discussion, both because of the salience of the issues, and the particular responsibilities of Premier Wen in that area," Bader told reporters.

"With regard to North Korea, we are looking to see the North take steps to address the grievances of the South in the wake of the Cheonan; that that is a critical first step before there can be any sort of multilateral process," Bader said. "And then, we would want to see some kind of behavior or manifestations by the North that indicate a sincerity about denuclearization."

The North Korean nuclear issue will be discussed at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus other regional powers, including South Korea, China and Japan, in Hanoi next month, Bader said, adding that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the Asian leaders' summit in lieu of Obama, who will participate in the summit next year for the first time by any U.S. president.

"We'll be talking about nonproliferation issues, the expectations that the countries of the region will rigorously enforce their obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions, particularly vis-a-vis North Korea and Iran," he said.

Bader said that Wen did not raise the issue of the U.S. supercarrier George Washington, set to take part in joint naval drills with South Korea in the Yellow Sea adjoining China.

"We regard the Yellow Sea as international waters, and in the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan, we have demonstrated our commitment to the defense of South Korea and the need for deterrence, and we'll continue to do so by exercises on both sides of the Korean Peninsula," he said.

Clinton, meanwhile, had a bilateral meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in New York, spokesman Philip Crowley said.

They "did touch on North Korea, and we have the same view about the importance of working together within the six-party process, and our hope that North Korea will take a more constructive path and will pursue denuclearization under the 2005 joint statement," Crowley said.

The spokesman said he does not expect the ongoing territorial dispute between China and Japan over Japan's detention of a Chinese trawler skipper in waters off the Senkaku islands, known as the Daioyu islands in Chinese, in the East China Sea will affect international efforts to revive the nuclear talks.

"I wouldn't see a connection between the current tension over this one episode between Japan and China, and I don't see it affecting North Korea," Crowley said.

North Korea has made a series of conciliatory gestures in recent weeks, apparently to improve the atmosphere for the talks' resumption.

The North has proposed a military dialogue with South Korea, initiated talks on a new round of family reunions for those separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula, returned seven crewmembers of a South Korean fishing boat caught along the sea border last month and requested aid to recover from recent floods.

North Korean media Wednesday announced the promotion of three diplomats in charge of the six-party talks, a possible sign that Pyongyang wants improved ties with Washington and an early resumption of the nuclear talks.

First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-Ju was promoted to deputy prime minister, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan to first vice foreign minister and Ri Yong-ho, Kim's deputy to the nuclear talks, to vice foreign minister.

Kang, the chief negotiator who signed the bilateral nuclear deal with the U.S. in 1994, is said to be the closest aide to North Korean leader Kim in foreign affairs. (PNA/Yonhap)

ALM/mlc

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