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Wiesenthal Center Takes On North Korean Human Rights Issue

Speakers at conference tell of seeing atrocities. Representatives plan a fact-finding trip.

September 14, 2004|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Allegations that political prisoners and their families are being gassed to death in North Korea prompted Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center to host a daylong conference Monday and announce plans to send representatives overseas to investigate.

"We have a moral obligation to speak out," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, noting what he called a "stark" parallel between Hitler's Germany and Kim Jong Il's North Korea.

The conference was prompted by a recent BBC documentary in which North Korean defectors alleged that political dissidents and their families were dying in gas chambers.

"These are extraordinarily serious allegations. We don't know yet for sure if they are totally reliable," Cooper said. "But as you can imagine, an institution carrying the name of Simon Wiesenthal feels strongly enough that this is an issue that needs to be pursued."

Several North Korean defectors who spoke at the conference recounted alleged atrocities.

Soon-Ok Lee said she witnessed guards in political prisons stepping on newborns to kill them in front of mothers. Yong Kim said he spent five years in a political prison camp because his father had been considered a spy and executed during the Korean War.

One of the defectors who appeared in the documentary, which was shown at the conference, was a scientist identified only as Dr. Kim. Cooper said Kim had been invited to address the conference but that South Korean officials had responded that he could not leave that country "for security reasons."

Representatives from the Wiesenthal Center will go to Seoul in two or three months to talk to Kim and other potential witnesses, Cooper said.

Los Angeles is home to the largest number of ethnic Koreans outside Asia.

Mayor James K. Hahn declared Monday "Human Rights Day" in support of the "conference of conscience" and in recognition of the more than 200,000 political prisoners believed being held in concentration camps in North Korea.

Keynote speaker Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) urged people to contact their senators to approve the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004, a measure passed by the House and intended to improve human rights in North Korea and help defectors and refugees.

Brownback, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said international attention had focused on nuclear weapons development in North Korea. This legislation, he said, would broaden the agenda of the six-nation talks over North Korea's nuclear program to include human rights abuses.

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