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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

'North Korea Freedom Week' Kicks off in Seoul, Washington for Human Rights Abuse

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- While North Korea is under harsh condemnation from the international community for its human rights abuses, South Korea and other countries held a week-long campaign to raise public awareness about the problems. The intensive worldwide campaign was organized and conducted by activists working to improve North Korea's human rights situation.

   Human rights advocacy groups have long called for international efforts to stop genocide and crimes against humanity in the socialist country, which they claim are being systematically carried out by North Korean authorities.

   South Korea and the United States, specifically, have shown deep concerns about the dismal human rights situation in North Korea, including forced labor camps and bans on religious freedom, assembly and association. The country has been accused of human rights abuses for decades, ranging from holding hundreds of thousands of political prisoners to torture and public executions.

   In Seoul, the North Korea Freedom Week was held for six days starting on April 29 in various locations across Seoul and Busan. The event included seminars on North Korean human rights conditions and rallies against China's repatriation of North Korean defectors as well as exhibitions and concerts regarding the issue.

   The Seoul event, dubbed "North Korea Freedom Week," kicked off at a National Assembly building with activists and North Korean defectors attending. About 30 lawmakers from the ruling and the main opposition parties attended the opening ceremony.

   Rep. Cho Myung-chul, a North Korean defector who became a lawmaker, said all the difficult problems of inter-Korean relations and national unifications issues stem from the abnormal characteristics of North Korean society which ignore basic human rights and freedoms and have no foundation of democracy in their society.

   Cho said if the North Korean dictatorial regime turns away the destitute lives of North Koreans without guaranteeing their human rights, all the worldwide activities such as the freedom week campaign will further increase the atrocities that the North Korean regime are staging indiscriminately.

   At an opening speech, the head of South Korea's ruling party urged the swift passage of a bill aimed at helping improve human rights conditions in North Korea.

   The Saenuri Party proposed the bill in 2008, but opposition from liberal and progressive parties prevented its passage. The conservative governing party is again moving to pass the bill through parliament.

   Hwang Woo-yea, the chief of the Saenuri Party, said, "We (lawmakers) should strive to pass the North Korean human rights law."

   Ahn Hong-joon, the chairman of the parliamentary committee for foreign affairs and unification, also said in the ceremony that he was "determined to pass the North Korean human rights law" during his term, which ends in one year and two months.

   The activist and defector groups have been holding the event annually in the final week of April since 2010.

   The same event has been held every year in Washington, D.C. since 2004 when key North Korean human rights promoter Suzanne Scholte started her campaign to push for the passage of a U.S. law to improve human rights in the communist country.

   During the opening event, Scholte noted that she cannot win the battle for North Koreans' human rights without help from South Koreans.

   In Washington, Scholte said on April 26 that activists working to improve North Korea's human rights situation would stage an intensive campaign worldwide to raise public awareness of the problem.

   They were set to hold various events in Washington, Seoul and other cities to mark the 10th annual North Korea Freedom Week from April 28 through May 4, according to Sholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, based in Washington.

   Her group works with other organizations and people supporting efforts to address North Korea's human rights issues.

  A special concert, titled "A Night of Hope," kicked off North Korea Freedom Week in Washington at 7 p.m. on April 28.

   This year, the coalition focused on collecting online petitions demanding China's new president, Xi Jinping, stop repatriating North Korean defectors.

   It has designated May 2 as Worldwide Awareness Day for North Korean Refugees. "Our focus is to have many Chinese embassies and consulates receive petitions to Xi Jinping on May 2 calling for the end to the illegal, inhuman and brutal repatriation of North Korean refugees. Many coordinators are also sponsoring events to raise awareness of this issue," Scholte said in an emailed message.

   In addition, various events will take place throughout North Korea Freedom Week in Seoul and several other South Korean cities, including a photo exhibition on North Korean human rights conditions, seminars and rallies, she added.

   Meanwhile, the U.S. government said on April 19 that North Korea's human rights conditions are still "deplorable," with its leadership trying to stave off a possible game changer -- an increased flow of information, in an annual report submitted to Congress.

   "Human rights conditions in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) remained deplorable," the State Department said in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012. "Defectors continued to report extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, arrests of political prisoners, and torture."

   The judiciary was not independent and did not provide fair trials or due process, and its government continued to control almost all aspects of its citizens' lives, denying freedom of association and expression, including for the press and religion groups, it added.

   The report assessed human rights records around the world last year. The North Korea portion was mostly based on defectors' testimonies and press reports.

   The department also pointed out the North maintains "a vast network of political prison camps, in which conditions were harsh and life-threatening." As many as 200,000 people are reportedly held in the gulags.

   It stressed increased access to information and new means of communication proved to be game changers, particularly in closed societies where people face restrictions on their fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

   Apparently with that in mind, the North's ruling elite have sought to control all sources of information for most of the nation's 24 million people, according to the report.

   "North Koreans risk punishment in order to obtain illegal radios, cell phones, and other multimedia devices that can increase their ability to communicate with each other and to a limited extent with the outside world," it said.

   But North Korea condemned the U.S. government report on its human rights conditions, calling it "a plot to topple our socialist system."

   On April 22, a spokesman for the North's foreign ministry rejected the U.S. report, denouncing it as "a reactionary and dangerous tool to intrude and intervene in countries that are against the U.S.," the (North) Korean Central Broadcasting Station monitored in Seoul said.

   The broadcasting station accused the U.S. of using the report to foster rebellion in the North and said the socialist country is determined to bolster its nuclear deterrence capacities.

   In Seoul on April 28, a local civic group said North Korean escapees plan to send a petition to the United Nations asking the international body to help determine the fate of family members held in the communist country's concentration camps.

   The Free the North Korea Gulag group held a press conference in Seoul to reveal the names of 40 detainees who are being held in camps run by the Pyongyang regime to deal with political dissenters. The names were compiled by 20 people who have escaped from the North in the past.

   "At the gathering we intend to deliver the names to representatives of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea and the National Human Rights Commission, which will be jointly charged with filing a formal request with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention," an official for the local group said.

   Activists said North Korea is holding thousands of political prisoners in at least six facilities where they face extrajudicial executions, torture and forced labor.

   On May 4, hundreds of South Korean police officers stopped dozens of North Korean defectors and activists from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border via balloon as North Korea warned of "unimaginable consequences."

   About 500 police officers prevented a truck carrying balloons and about 200,000 leaflets from accessing the defectors' launch site of Imjingak near the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.

   Police have vowed to cordon off the area to stop the leafleting campaign, citing safety concerns of South Korean residents near the border amid North Korea's recent threats.

   Park Sang-hak, one of the key organizers of the botched attempt, said he will continue the campaign to tell the truth to North Koreans and eventually encourage them to rise up against their leader, Kim Jong-un.

   "The leaflets are meant to tell facts and the truth to North Koreans in a peaceful manner," Park said in a news conference in Imjingak, along with other activists, including American activist Suzanne Scholte, who is in South Korea as part of a week-long event to campaign for improving human rights conditions in the North.

   Park's comment came as Uriminzokkiri, a North Korean propaganda Web site, warned that "the leaflet spreading, masterminded by the United States and its puppets, will lead to unimaginable consequences."

   The Web site said merciless punishments should be given to Park and other human rights activists for escalating inter-Korean tensions, citing an article by Pak Jung-suk, a former North Korean defector in Seoul who fled back to her communist homeland last year.

   North Korea's Uriminzokkiri warned last month that the launch site will be immediately blown away even if a single leaflet is sent across the border.

   In recent years, the North has threatened to launch a "merciless military strike" against South Korea over its propaganda leaflets, condemning them as psychological warfare. Still, no actual attack has occurred.

   In a related development, a South Korean activist who has been engaged in sending pro-democracy leaflets into North Korea will receive an international human rights award, a local civic group said on May 6.

   The Fighters for Free North Korea (FFNK) said its representative Park Sang-hak will be awarded the 2013 Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in Oslo, Norway on May 15.

   The group said it received an official notification from the U.S.-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF) on May 5 and said Park will be leaving for Norway on May 11 to take part in the award ceremony.

   Park, a North Korean defector, has worked tirelessly for the democratization of the isolationist country after his escape in 1999. The activist and the FFNK use helium balloons to send human rights and pro-democracy literature, DVDs, USB drives and transistor radios from South Korea to North Korea.

   The HRF was established in 2005 and is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving human rights all over the world. It holds the annual Oslo Freedom Forum with Havel having been the chairman for the organization from 2009 until his death in December 2011. The Havel prize, meanwhile, was created by the widow of the former Czech president and playwright Dagmar Havlova.