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North Korea rights issue to get more focus

Key U.S. envoy tells senators the matter will figure in talks.

August 01, 2008|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Under pressure from political conservatives, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea agreed Thursday to step up the Bush administration's emphasis on human rights issues during nuclear weapons talks, but stopped short of saying an improved record would be a precondition for normalized relations.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told a Senate committee that North Korea's rights record was "abysmal." He promised that from now on, the country's treatment of its citizens would be a formal part of discussions between the United States and the government in Pyongyang. Up until now, the Americans have raised the issue only as a secondary concern in the nuclear talks.

"We will definitely raise these issues as an element of our normalization process," Hill said under questioning by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who had held up the nomination of a U.S. ambassador to South Korea as a sign of his unhappiness with the administration's approach on North Korea.

But Hill added: "I'm not in a position, at my level, to state to you today what the specific conditions of normalization will be."

Conservatives in Washington are upset over prospects that the United States might normalize relations with North Korea after the isolated communist country abandons its nuclear program, in spite of widespread human rights abuses. But the issue is sensitive diplomatically, because the North Korean regime views any criticism of its rights record as part of an American plot to overthrow it.

Brownback, a frequent critic of North Korea's rights record, had blocked the nomination of Kathleen Stephens, President Bush's choice to be ambassador to Seoul. Stephens, a career diplomat, would succeed Alexander Vershbow, who is completing a customary three-year rotation.

Brownback said Thursday that he was lifting his hold on Stephens' nomination because of Hill's assurances.

Hill said that Pyongyang's prison camps were "truly a scar on the Korean peninsula" and that U.S. officials intended to raise the issue, along with concerns about North Korea's judicial system.

The U.S., Russia, China, Japan and South Korea have been in talks with North Korea since 2003, reaching a deal under which Pyongyang would halt its nuclear weapons program and gradually give up its nuclear weapons and plutonium stockpile.

Under questioning by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Hill said the agreement commits North Korea to give up all its plutonium, including the fissile material in the small number of bombs it currently possesses.

But Hill said he could not estimate how long it would take to reach that goal.

"That is very difficult to assess," Hill said. He said the wary North Koreans "prefer small steps," and pointed out that they had shut down their rickety Yongbyon nuclear facility only "because we moved them along."

Hill's answer underscored the uncertainty still surrounding the multinational deal. U.S. and North Korean diplomats are trying to work out a process for verifying disclosures in June by North Korea about its nuclear activities and assets. But many experts on North Korea remain skeptical that Pyongyang will ever be willing to entirely close down a program it believes has guaranteed the security of the regime.

The hearing signaled the widely varying reactions to the deal. Although many conservatives are deeply unhappy with the agreement, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a staunch conservative, told Hill that "it looks like you're beginning to make some progress."

At the same time, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he was worried an administration decision to drop North Korea from the U.S. list of governments that sponsor terrorism might have been "premature."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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