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(LEAD) Kerry raises N. Korean gulag issue in confirmation hearing
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (Yonhap) -- Sen. John Kerry, the nominee to be the next U.S. secretary of state, said Thursday that the Obama administration should be more vocal in criticizing the issue of North Korean political prisoners.

   He made brief comments on North Korea in his Senate confirmation hearing, in which the Korean Peninsula was largely ignored.

   American foreign policy is "defined by leadership of life-threatening issues like climate change, or fighting to lift up millions of lives by promoting freedom and democracy from Africa to the Americas and speaking out for the prisoners of gulags in North Korea and victims of human trafficking," Kerry said in his opening remarks at the hearing, which lasted more than two hours.

Sen. John Kerry, nominee to be the next secretary of state, attends the Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 24.

The much-awaited hearing came less than a day after North Korea's military issued a threat that it would conduct another nuclear test and launch more long-range missiles targeting the U.S.
But Kerry and more than a dozen senators in the hearing room appeared indifferent to the North Korea issue, apparently focusing on Iran and Middle East concerns.

   Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was the only one who brought up Pyongyang's provocative manner.

   "North Korea today announced that they're developing a weapon that can reach the United States of America," he said.

   Rubio also argued that "the Bush administration was wrong to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and I hope we'll reverse that."

   In response, Kerry did not mention North Korea, although he named it later in talking about U.S. relations with China.

   "China is cooperating with us now on Iran. I think there might be more we could perhaps do with respect to North Korea. There could be more we could do in other parts of the Far East," he said.

   A diplomatic source here said Kerry might have deliberately avoided comments on North Korea in the crucial confirmation hearing.

   "It's true that Sen. John Kerry supported active efforts for dialogue with North Korea but what's important is his strategy as secretary of state," the source said.

   Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran and former presidential candidate, is known for having long advocated dialogue with North Korea.

   In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in June 2011, he called for direct dialogue with North Korea to end its hostility.

   "The best alternative is for the United States to engage North Korea directly," he said, with the six-way nuclear talks long stalled.

   "While North Korea may be the 'land of lousy options,' as one expert calls it, inaction only invites a dangerous situation to get worse," he added.

   In 2012, Kerry met with North Korea's nuclear envoy, Ri Yong-ho, in New York. Ri was on a trip there for an academic seminar.

   After the meeting, Kerry said the North Korean official promised to abide by the Feb. 29 deal in which Pyongyang agreed not to launch any long-range missiles.

   No long after Kerry's meeting with Ri, however, North Korea went ahead with a rocket launch, an apparent slight to the senator.