The U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea argued that the lack of basic liberties in the communist nation was an international issue and called on the world to pressure Pyongyang. 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 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 directed at South Korea, 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.
Lefkowitz, whose job was created this year by 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.
Calling on China to stop sending North Koreans back to their homeland, Lefkowitz said Beijing should also allow the U.N. refugee agency access to the defectors.
Fumiko Saiga, Japan's newly appointed special envoy on North Korea human rights who was attending the conference, also called for international cooperation on the issue.