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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 209 (May 10, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK

North Korea Claims High-profile South Korean Died of Hepatitis

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has claimed the wife of a high-profile defector to South Korea died of hepatitis in the socialist country, a Seoul-based rights advocacy group said on May 8.

   Pyongyang sent an official reply to a U.N. inquiry about the fate of Shin Sook-ja and her two daughters, who were trapped in the North after going there in 1985 with Shin's husband, Oh Kil-nam. Oh escaped from the North the following year, and his wife and daughters were allegedly sent to a political prison camp as punishment.

   According to the North Korean announcement, the 69-year-old South Korean woman is dead and the couple's two daughters have renounced their father.

   The notification was given in a letter to the United Nations by a North Korean diplomat stationed in Switzerland. The letter, written by Ri Jang-gon, the North's deputy ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, was in response to an inquiry by the U.N. working group on arbitrary detention, under the U.N. Human Rights Council.

   In the English-language letter, Ri said Shin "died of the hepatitis she suffered since the 1980s" before arriving in the North. It also referred to Shin as the "ex-wife" of Oh, who has been fighting in Seoul for her and their daughter's release.

   The letter said the daughters "do not regard Oh as their father since he abandoned his family and drove their mother to death." The letter, dated April 27, was revealed by the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) at a press conference in Seoul on May 8.

   The letter was addressed to the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which the ICNK petitioned in November to have Oh's family released.

   Several North Korean defectors in the South have testified they saw Oh's family in the Yodok political prison camp.

   The letter is the first official acknowledgement of the fate of Shin, but did not provide any details on when she died. Oh said at the press conference in Seoul that he had not divorced his wife and that she had been cured of hepatitis before the family traveled to the North from Germany.

   He said he did not believe the death notification. "I think she is still alive," Oh said, adding that he hopes to reunite with his family members and hug them and wipe away their tears.

   Oh has been at the forefront of a public campaign to have his family released from North Korea. In November, the U.N. envoy on North Korean human rights, Marzuki Darusman, met with Oh in Seoul and promised to work toward the return of his family.

   Ri, the North Korean diplomat, said the couple's daughters "strongly refused to deal with Oh and asked not to bother themselves anymore," and suggested Shin and her daughters had not been arbitrarily detained.

   Ri's claims could not be independently verified, as the North has a track record of forcing detainees to make false statements.

   Thousands of South Koreans, including lawmakers and human rights activists, have mounted calls at home and abroad for the return of Shin and her two daughters, who reportedly were being held at the prison camp until at recently.

   "Mr. Oh submitted a plea for rescuing his wife and two daughters from North Korea to a U.N. working group on Nov. 18, 2011, through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights New York office," said Kwon Eun-kyoung, manager of Open Radio for North Korea, at a separate press conference in Seoul on May 8.

   The letter was shown to reporters on a TV screen at the ICNK conference, with Ri's name and signature at the bottom.

   "I wish to underline that the case mentioned in your letter has nothing to do with arbitrary detention," the letter added.

   Shin, who was a nurse in Germany, married to Oh in the 1970s and both daughters were born in Germany. The family traveled to North Korea in 1985 after being persuaded to do so by North Korean agents.

   However, Oh was soon unhappy with the North's system, and in 1986 he defected from the regime, leaving his wife and daughters behind.

   "When I first read this letter, I suspected North Korea was once again telling a manipulated story, just as they did to Japanese families whose members were abducted," Oh said at the Open Radio for North Korea press conference. "There's no specific mention about when and where my wife died."

   Rep. Park Sun-young of South Korea's Liberty Forward Party also said the letter was suspicious. "The latest witness in North Korea said she was in the Yodok concentration camp in 2004," Park said. "Witnesses said her health was in a bad condition."

   A bill asking North Korea to confirm the whereabouts of abductees is pending in the Canadian parliament, Park said.

   Ha Tae-kyung, an activist-turned-lawmaker, demanded Pyongyang verify details of Shin's death.

   "We want them to confirm where, when and how she died and give us an official medical document," Ha said. "If she indeed died, her remains should be sent to the South. The two daughters will also have to meet with their father in a third country.

   "However, it's positive that North Korea sent this kind of official reply in the case for the first time, and we think the regime under the ruling of Kim Jong-un is more conscious of human rights affairs than his father's."

   The U.N. working group sent a letter of inquiry to North Korea on March 1, said Kwon Eun-sook of the ICNK. "North Korea had 60 days to respond or face the working group adopting our petition," Kwon added. "It probably had no choice but to defend itself."

   The North responded on April 27, 58 days after the U.N. working group sent its letter of inquiry, apparently mindful of the 60-day deadline.

   Even if Shin is dead, the regime is unlikely to disclose the time and location of her death. "If Shin really died, it was probably at the Yodok political prison camp or the internment facility in Wonhwa-ri," said an informed source.

  (END)
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