February 26, 2019 / 5:16 AM / 6 months ago

REFILE-UPDATE 1-Half of N.Korea defectors suffered violence, but rights not a top summit issue

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By Joyce Lee

SEOUL, Feb 26 (Reuters) - About half of 451 North Korean defectors questioned in a survey endured physical violence at the hands of North Korean authorities, a rights group said on Tuesday, as leader Kim Jong Un prepared to meet U.S. President Donald Trump for a summit.

U.S. lawmakers called Kim the “leader of perhaps the world’s most repressive regime” on Sunday, but analysts say that as in the leaders’ first summit, in Singapore in June, human rights are unlikely to be addressed in their second.

Trump and Kim are due to meet in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on Wednesday and Thursday, eight months after their historic Singapore summit, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

On the top of their agenda is the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and what concessions the United States might offer in return for North Korea steps to give up its weapons.

North Korea’s poor human rights record is not likely to figure prominently, it at all.

The survey, conducted between 2015 and 2018 and released by Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group, found that three out of four North Korean defectors had, before they fled North Korea, experienced physical violence or the death of close family members, by execution or starvation, forced repatriation, arrest or detention.

About 48 percent of the respondents said they had personally experienced violence perpetrated by the North Korean authorities, including beating, torture, rape and other sexual assault.

In a recent interview, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is in Hanoi for the summit, reaffirmed a U.S. commitment to speak out and act against human rights violations, including those in North Korea.

“The United States calls out human rights violations each place that we find them, whether it’s the Chinese holding Muslim Uighurs inside of their country in detention camps, the activities in North Korea,” Pompeo said in an interview with CBS News this month.

“There is no nation that acts against violations of human rights in the way the American nation does, and President Trump has been at the forefront of doing that,” Pompeo added.

‘RIGHTS THRIVE IN PEACE’

But there has been dismay that rights seem to have been relegated down the agenda in dealing with North Korea.

In Seoul, protesters tore up photographs of Kim and threw them to the ground on Tuesday.

“We are sceptical of the U.S.-North Korea summit without discussing human right issues,” said Ihn Ji-yeon, a leader of the anti-North rally and a spokeswoman for the small Korean Patriots Party.

Britain’s minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Ahmad, told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday the rights situation in North Korea was not getting any better.

“Despite some welcome signs on the political track, there has been no improvement in the human rights situation,” he said.

U.S. lawmakers also raised North Korea’s human rights violations in a letter to Trump on Sunday.

“The Singapore meeting gave Kim - the leader of perhaps the world’s most repressive regime - legitimacy and acceptance on the global stage while effectively undermining our policy of maximum pressure and sanctions,” the U.S. senators from the Democratic Party said.

“Meeting the challenge of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, as well as addressing other issues such as North Korea’s systemic, gross violations of human rights, is of concern to all Americans and to our allies and partners.”

But South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told the Geneva council: “human rights cannot thrive in the absence of peace”.

She said progress towards a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula”, which had started, would have enormous rewards, including an improvement in human rights.

For live coverage of the summit, click: here Reporting by Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Yijin Kim in Seoul, Josh Smith in Hanoi and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva Editing by Robert Birsel

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