North Korea says it will re-start its nuclear weapons program next week. This comes after the regime dismissed United Nations monitors from its main atomic reactor. This news as well as conflicting reports about the health of leader Kim Jong Il have overshadowed events to mark North Korea human rights week in South Korea.
Pyongyang says it will restore its main Yongbyon atomic complex that it had been dismantling since last November
For many of the 14,000 North Korean defectors who now call South Korea home, this was a time to remember loved ones who lost their lives at the hands of the Pyongyang regime. An offering of food for their spirits was placed on an altar at a monument in the Injingak Peace Park, seven kilometres south of the North Korean border. Several defectors bowed in silence.
Advocacy groups say thousands of North Koreans languish in prison camps or have been executed for offenses including conversion to Christianity and crossing into China, in search of food.
One defector told the crowd about the sufferings that she and other North Koreans endured before they fled their homeland. She blames the so-called Dear Leader Kim Jong il and his entire family for the horrific situation there and predicts more and more people will escape until his government collapses.
Committee to investigate human rights issues
South Korea is putting more pressure on its Northern neighbour to address its human rights record. Seoul announced this week that it will form a special committee to investigate the international community’s concerns; an almost 180 degree turn around from just a year ago.
Human rights in North Korea were a virtually taboo subject during ten years of liberal rule in South Korea. Critics, including conservative president Lee Myung Bak, say the two previous administrations were silent on these matters out of fear of damaging inter-Korean relations.
Chang Hye Seon is a former North Korean journalist and defected in 1996. The 63-year old says he welcomes the change in South Korean policy.
He says, “As for North Korean refugees, we feel that Lee Myung bak is doing a better job, but there is still room for improvement.”
North to restart nuclear plant
But Seoul and Washington will most likely have to put human rights on the backburner now that Pyongyang says it will turn the Yongbyon nuclear reactor back on next week.
The facility was shut down last year, as part of a deal made during the six party denuclearization talks. It once produced plutonium, the material that was most likely used when North Korea tested a nuclear device in October 2006.
Recent reports on the health of Kim Jong il have made the future of the negotiations even more uncertain. South Korean and American intelligence reports say that Kim suffered a stroke. North Korea has firmly denied those claims. Andrei Lankov, North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Kookmin University, says whether or not Kim survives, the talks will not persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal.
“These talks are useful in some regards, but I don’t think they will ever produce a non nuclear North Korea. So, if people believe, you know, the death of Kim Jong il might stop denuclearization talks, they are wrong.”
Pyongyang says it is resuming its nuclear program because Washington did not remove North Korea from the list of states that sponsor terrorism.