- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

SEOUL — The United Nations’ point man on human rights in North Korea said yesterday that it was political persecution, not hunger, that made people flee the Stalinist state.

Thai academic Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, told reporters that almost all refugees he had met on a 10-day visit to the South had fled for political reasons.

He characterized as “disquieting” refugees’ statements that families were collectively punished for individuals’ crimes, with “different degrees of violence” being committed against them.

He did not address some of the more sensational accusations of human rights abuses in North Korea, such as chemical warfare experiments on humans. Nor did he answer questions on public executions. Clandestinely shot videos purporting to show firing squads have surfaced in Japan and South Korea this year.

However, in an apparent swipe at North Korea’s “military first” policy, under which economic resources are channeled toward the military, Mr. Muntarbhorn urged the government to feed its people, saying, “No country is too poor to implement food security.”

He also said that all food aid, multilateral or bilateral, requires monitoring. With South Korea this year having diverted its food aid from the U.N. World Food Program directly to Pyongyang, there are concerns that the aid’s dissemination will not be effectively overseen.

Noting that Pyongyang was a signatory to four U.N. human rights treaties, Mr. Muntarbhorn hoped that it would invite U.N. groups into the country — including himself. North Korean officials have met with Mr. Muntarbhorn once, have “rebutted” his mandate and have refused him entry, he said.

Applauding Seoul’s policy of separating humanitarian assistance from political issues, Mr. Muntarbhorn said North Korean human rights issues were “more visible” in South Korea today, compared with the “low-key” approach of the past. He specifically cited Seoul’s efforts to reunite divided families and to pursue issues of people purportedly abducted and missing since the Korean War.

Seoul’s soft line on human rights has faced criticism at home and abroad. South Korea has abstained from voting on three resolutions on North Korean human rights at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

In Washington on Wednesday, Mark Lagon, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations, applauded the drafting of the latest such resolution by the European Union, submitted Nov. 2. A vote on the resolution is expected at the U.N. General Assembly next week. Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said earlier this month that Seoul was undecided on how it would vote.

A former presidential adviser defended Seoul’s unconditional assistance policies.

“There is a hierarchy of human needs: Food, shelter and clothing is higher up than human rights,” said Moon Chung-in, a political science professor at Yonsei University.

Mr. Moon, a key architect of former President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” toward the North, said external pressure was unlikely to change matters.

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