Seoul, South Korea — North Korea’s military warned on Wednesday that South Korea would face retaliation if it didn’t stop activists from sending propaganda leaflets critical of human rights conditions in the communist country.
The North’s People’s Armed Forces “will never tolerate even the slightest act” of undermining “our leadership’s absolute authority,” the military said in a statement.
It also demanded that South Korea immediately punish the activists engaged in sending leaflets across the border and disband their organizations. “The separatists at home and abroad will never be able to flee from a stern punishment by the nation for challenging history,” said the statement carried by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.
A group of South Korean activists floated balloons toward North Korea containing some 8,000 leaflets denouncing human rights abuses in the Stalinist country and calling for the release of a U.S. Christian missionary who crossed into the North as a protest against its human rights abuses.
“We urge an immediate release of all inmates in concentration camps in the North,” said the leaflets scattered by huge helium balloons. The North is believed to hold 150,000 to 200,000 people in political prison camps.
Robert Park, a 28-year-old Korean-American from Arizona, slipped into the North in late December to call on the regime to release political prisoners, shut concentration camps and improve human rights conditions, according to his colleagues. The North has said it has detained an American for illegal entry, an apparent reference to Park.
The United States is seeking information about Park through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which represents Washington’s interests. But the North has rejected requests for access to him.
“We are actively working to find out where he is being held and to urge that he be released,” said U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights Robert King, who is staying in Seoul. King used his visit to Seoul to criticize human rights violations in North Korea, saying that the “appalling” situation is preventing a normalization of relations between the two countries.
Upon arriving in Seoul on his first trip overseas since being confirmed by the Senate last November, King blasted the North as “one of the worst places in terms of the lack of human rights.”
“A relationship with the United States and North Korea will have to involve human rights,” King told journalists at the end of a meeting with Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan earlier this week.
The envoy also met Seoul’s pointman on North Korea and top leaders of political parties to ask for concerted efforts to improve human rights conditions in the communist country. King told them that discussions on the normalization of Washington-Pyongyang relations should include the North’s human rights issues.
On Wednesday, King traveled to a resettlement education center for North Korean defectors who fled from repression and dictatorship in their homeland, underscoring his push to improve the humanitarian plight facing residents in the communist country.
His campaign was backed by the U.S.-based rights group Freedom House, which in its annual report named North Korea among the nine worst countries in terms of human rights and democracy.
The United Nations’ special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Vitit Muntarbhorn, has also travelled to South Korea to gather information on conditions in the North and meet defectors and human rights activists.
The U.S.-led human rights campaign comes just at a time when North Korea is launching a new peace offensive in an apparent bid to boost its leverage once the six-party nuclear talks resume.
The North proposed holding talks with the United States for a formal peace treaty that would replace the truce that technically ended the Korean War six decades ago. The 1953 Korean armistice agreement was trilaterally signed by North Korea, its ally China and the United States, representing the 16-nation U.N. forces that rescued South Korea from the North’s surprise invasion on June 25, 1950.
North Korea hinted it could come back to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, but said discussion of a peace treaty should take place within the six-party talks framework or at a separate forum that includes the United States and China.
The resumption of the six-way talks depends on better ties between Pyongyang and Washington and a quick start of talks on a peace treaty, the North’s Foreign Ministry said. The proposal was immediately rejected by the United States and South Korea, which called for North Korea to move first to address international concerns about its nuclear weapons.
The United States cannot easily accept the North’s call for a peace treaty because it could lead to a withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and weaken its security alliance with Seoul.
Analysts here said the North’s peace offensive is aimed at increasing its bargaining leverage in future negotiations on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons drive.
“Desperate for aid, the North is likely to return to the six-nation nuclear talks, but it would try to stall negotiations by putting forward sticky agenda items, such as a peace treaty, which can hardly be accepted,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul.