U.S. Urges Pressure on North Korea Over Religious Freedom

Associated Press

ROME, July 13 - A U.S. government group urged Asian and Western countries on Thursday not to focus only on North Korea's nuclear program and its missile tests, but to pressure the nation's isolated regime also over religious freedom and human rights.

Officials with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory body created by Congress in 1998, were in Rome to meet with Italian and Vatican officials to present what they say is evidence of North Korea's dismal human rights record.
"The world doesn't know what is going on, they know about the missiles but that's all," said Roman Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who heads the commission.

Last week, North Korea fired off seven missiles that all fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan. The move sparked widespread condemnation, and Japan has been pushing for the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution protesting the tests.

"What is going on in North Korea is executions, what is going on is extreme repression of people," Ramirez told a press conference. Pyongyang insists that it respects human rights.

The commission's delegation met with Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo and attended a Rome conference on religious freedom in North Korea sponsored by Italy's Radical Party and the Washington-based Freedom House democracy research institute.

The U.S. officials presented a 2005 report based on interviews with 40 North Koreans who left the country between 1989 and 2001.

All those interviewed acknowledged that no public worshipping was allowed in North Korea aside from the cult of Kim Il Sung, the national founder who was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il.

Some had also witnessed executions of people who had organized an underground church or were found in possession of a Bible, said David Hawk, a human rights advocate and author of the report.

Hawk said South Korea and other countries negotiating with the North over its nuclear program should also put human rights on the agenda of any talks.

Accompanying the officials were also North Koreans who had been victims of human rights abuses, including Son Jong Hoon, who started an international campaign to save his brother Jong Nam, sentenced to death on espionage charges after converting to Protestantism.