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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

U.N. Urges N. Korea to Release S. Korean Family Detained in the North

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The United Nations has requested North Korea release and compensate a South Korean family held in the socialist state for 25 years, confirming it is a case of arbitrary detention, activists said on May 29.

   The request marked the U.N.'s most specific statement to date regarding Shin Sook-ja, a 70-year-old South Korean woman who the North claims is dead, and her two daughters, thought to remain there after their father escaped to the South.

   The U.N. body on arbitrary detention urged North Korea to release the wife and two daughters of a high-profile South Korean man, saying their decades-old detention in the North is "arbitrary."

   Oh Kil-nam fled the communist country alone in 1986, a year after his family was lured to the North via West Germany. His escape led to the detention of his wife, Shin, and their two daughters in a political prison camp.

   The U.N. working group concluded that the wife and daughters of the South Korean double-defector were detained forcibly in North Korea, contradicting Pyongyang's recent claim that the daughters were voluntarily staying there. Pyongyang also claimed in a letter to the working group that Oh's wife died of hepatitis.

   The continued detention since 1987 of Shin and her two daughters "has been and is arbitrary," the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in opinions adopted at its session on May 2, according to the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), a Seoul-based rights advocacy group.

   The rights advocacy group, which petitioned the U.N. body in November to have Oh's family released, announced the U.N. document in a news conference on May 29. The group is under the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

   The ICNK is a group helping Oh, the economist who brought the family to the North in 1985 but escaped the next year.

   Activists welcomed the move. "This is an authorized opinion by the U.N., so now we can push member states to help rescue the family," said Kwon Eun-kyoung, an ICNK representative.

   The North told the UNHRC in April that Shin had died of hepatitis, referring to her as Oh's "ex-wife" and that the daughters, Hae-won and Kyu-won, had renounced their father.

   Oh and the activists want the North to prove Shin's death by providing more detailed information or repatriating her remains. Oh, who at the time held left-wing beliefs, took the family to the North after being told by authorities his wife could receive free hepatitis treatment there.

   But Oh says the North forced him and his wife to create propaganda for the regime. He escaped when Pyongyang dispatched him to Germany to recruit more South Koreans. Pyongyang is believed to have abducted 3,835 South Korean citizens, mostly fishermen, since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War with 500 thought to remain there.

   The family's saga garnered attention earlier this year on the back of a grassroots campaign launched from Shin's hometown of Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province. Oh took out full-page ads in local papers calling on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to take up the issue.

   North Korea is considered one of the world's worst human rights violators, operating a sprawling political prisoner system and blocking the flow of outside information to maintain an iron-fisted rule over its people.

   Miguel de la Lama, secretary of the U.N. working group, sent an official statement dated on May 24 to the ICNK.

   "The continued detention since 1987 ... has been and is arbitrary. The (North Korean) government has not provided information about the current situation of Mr. Oh Kil-nam's two daughters nor on the circumstances of Ms. Shin Sook-ja's reported death," the statement continued.

   The U.N.-mandated body that investigates cases of arbitrary detention also requested that North Korea "take necessary steps to remedy the situation, which are the immediate release of, and adequate reparation to, these persons," the rights advocacy group said.

   Oh welcomed the U.N.'s step and expressed hope that he could meet with his two daughters in either South Korea or Germany.

   "There are many mountains to climb, but this is a positive development," Oh said in the news conference, referring to the difficulty of meeting his daughters in the North. Oh also said he wanted to receive the remains of his wife if she died, as claimed by the North.

   Choi Song-ryong, head of an association of families of those kidnapped by North Korea, claimed in the news conference that Oh's two daughters are being held in Pyongyang, citing an unidentified informant on the issue. Choi declined to give any further details.

   The U.N. move came five days after a senior North Korean diplomat told the U.N. group Shin died of hepatitis and Oh's two daughters do not regard Oh as their father since "he abandoned his family and drove their mother to death."

   Ri Jang-gon, deputy permanent representative for North Korea at the United Nations in Geneva, also claimed that the two daughters "strongly refused to deal with Oh and asked not to bother themselves anymore." Ri also indicated Shin and her two daughters have nothing to do with arbitrary detention issues.

   Sources say Shin and her two daughters reportedly were being held at a prison camp in the North until at least recently. The working group's response came after Pyongyang sent it a letter dated April 27 that Shin "died of hepatitis, which she suffered from since the 1980s."

   The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade welcomed the stance, calling on Pyongyang to respect international norms and promptly release the detainees. According to a document adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention early this month, the three had been detained in violation of articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

   Meanwhile, special rapporteurs in the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights are to issue statements next month detailing instances of torture as well as the food shortages and health problems in North Korea.

   "Human rights abuses are more serious in North Korea than in other countries, and there have been calls from within the U.N. that it should have done more to address the problem," a diplomatic source in Seoul said.

   "As a result, five to six U.N. special rapporteurs will make statements about the situation soon." In addition to the special rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, Marzuki Darusman, there are U.N. rapporteurs specializing in around 40 different fields, including torture, freedom of expression, hunger and poverty.

   Some of them plan to gather next month for an annual meeting and discuss the human rights situation in North Korea. It is rare for several special rapporteurs to issue a joint statement on a specific country.

   "The fact that several of them are joining hands to speak out underscores how seriously the U.N. takes the situation in the North," the source added. "This will have a major impact on the international community."

   In another development, South Korea's top envoy to the European Union has pressed North Korea to immediately free Oh's wife and two daughters.

   Kim Chang-beom, the South Korean ambassador, also proposed that the European Parliament and the international community cooperate closely to try to improve North Korea's dismal human rights record.

   Kim made the comments in a session of the European Parliament Subcommittee on North Korea's human rights record in Brussels on May 30.

   His comments came a day after a Seoul-based rights advocacy group announced a U.N. document that demanded Pyongyang immediately release Shin Sook-ja and her two daughters. In a video message to the subcommittee session, Oh pleaded for the European Parliament's help to repatriate his family from North Korea.

   The session was attended by about 70 people, including members of the European Parliament and Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues.

   The session came five days after the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on China to stop deporting North Korean refugees back to the North. Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, home to more than 23,500 North Korean defectors.

   China does not recognize North Korean refugees and repatriates them back to their homeland, where they face harsh punishment including execution, according to defectors and activists.