Breaking 'information blockade' key to change in NK: US envoy
The U.S. envoy on human rights in North Korea said Thursday his government is firmly committed to pressing ahead with efforts to allow ordinary North Koreans access to outside news, stressing that breaking an "information blockade" is the key to change in the isolated nation.
Ambassador Robert King said human rights conditions in North Korea appear worse today than they were in the Soviet Union four decades ago, but the North's strict restriction of information is one reason why there is less of an outcry.
"The United States broadcasts news and other information into the North, in an effort to break down the isolation of the people there and to make available independent sources of information," King told a forum in Seoul.
Citing his early work experience at Radio Free Europe at a time when Central Europe was under Soviet domination in the 1960s, King said, "I still believe in the power of broadcasting and that breaking the information blockade is the key to positive change in North Korea."
"Ultimately, a more open information environment contributes to more conscious North Korean citizens," the U.S. envoy said on the penultimate day of his week-long visit to Seoul.
Last month, a U.S. study commissioned by the State Department showed that North Koreans are increasingly, although clandestinely, enjoying access to outside information through DVDs and radio.
"In the North Korean context, small but significant changes in the media landscape are under way, and the United States remains committed to increasing information to the DPRK," King said, using the acronym for the North's official name.
"This is a fundamental component of our commitment to improving human rights in North Korea."
King described radio in North Korea as "the only real-time direct source of sensitive outside news available nationwide."
In North Korea, mobile phone communication is available but severely restricted. It is also illegal to own or use a radio that can be tuned, permitting the reception of any stations other than the state-controlled pre-tuned channels.
North Korea has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The regime does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps a tight control over outside information.
Pyongyang has long bristled at any criticism of its human rights record, however, denouncing such talk as part of U.S.-led attempts to topple the regime.
South Korean and U.S. officials have increased pressure on North Korea to improve its human rights record since the North's failed launch of a long-range rocket on April 13.
Concern persists that North Korea may soon conduct a third nuclear test and wage military provocation to make amends for its failed launch, despite the North announcing it has no immediate plan to do so. The North's previous two rocket launches in 2006 and 2009 were followed by nuclear tests.
King said the U.S. is "prepared to engage constructively with North Korea, but its new leadership needs to understand that there will be no rewards for provocations."
North Korea will "achieve nothing by threats or by provocations," King said, adding that a majority of ordinary North Koreans may not be aware of the failed rocket launch due to the information blockade.
The North's new leader, Kim Jong-un, took over the communist nation after his father and longtime ruler, Kim Jong-il, died last December. Pyongyang's propaganda machine has cranked up to rally support for the new leader, who is believed to be in his late 20s.
While North Korea has officially denied the existence of political prison camps, Pyongyang is believed to have up to 200,000 people in hidden, Soviet-style gulags where torture and executions are routine and starvation is widespread.
Rajiv Narayan, an East Asia team researcher at the London-based Amnesty International, told the forum, "Many North Korean people disappear once they are sent to the kwanliso," referring to the notorious prison camps.
"The systemic and widespread human rights violations perpetrated by authorities within the kwanliso constitute crimes against humanity," the researcher said.
The political prison camps are used by the North Korean regime as a "means to curb any form of civil or political dissent," Narayan said. (Yonhap)