WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. State Department spokeswoman declined to say whether human rights abuses were on the agenda of meetings with North Korea, despite criticism by successive administrations and a U.S. government report on Tuesday that described Pyongyang as running a system of prison labor camps.
“I’m not saying it will be, I’m not saying it won’t be. I’m just not going to get ahead of the Secretary’s meetings that start this week,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, referring to a meeting on Thursday in New York between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol, ahead of a potential summit.
Any summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would chiefly focus on Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, Nauert said.
While the United States has long criticized North Korea for rights abuses, a possible meeting in Singapore on June 12 would be the first opportunity for a sitting U.S. president to directly raise the issue with the North Koreans.
The White House was not immediately available to comment on whether North Korea’s rights record would be raised.
While talks are expected to focus mainly on North Korea’s denuclearization and its security, the United Nations and other groups have urged the United States not to neglect human rights.
Human rights abuses in North Korea, including violations of religious freedom, are a “matter of discussion” for the United States, said Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, in releasing the U.S. State Department’s 2017 International Religious Freedom Report.
“You’ve got a gulag system operating in North Korea, and it’s been a terrible situation for ... many years,” said Brownback. North Korea has long been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” in the report.
Asked whether he expected the issue to be raised in the talks with Pyongyang, Brownback said: “I think they’re raising all of these issues.”
The report accused North Korea of dealing “harshly” with people who engaged in almost any religious practice, through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. It said an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in a political prison camp system in remote areas “under horrific conditions.”
Three U.S. citizens were freed from North Korean detention two weeks ago, including at least one who spent time in labor camp.
The International Religious Freedom Report documented abuses in 200 countries and territories.
Brownback also named Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Eritrea and Turkmenistan as countries where suppression of religious life was a “particular concern.”
And he called on countries to act to end attacks by government forces in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Separately, fighting between the military and ethnic minority Kachin since April has displaced more than 5,000 villagers, according to the United Nations.
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic minority insurgent forces, has regularly clashed with government troops in the mountainous region bordering China and India since 2011, when a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down.
The Kachin fighting has been eclipsed in media coverage by the plight of nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since last August.
“We must do more to help them as they continue to be targeted for their faith,” said Brownback. “I believe it is ethnic cleansing of a religious minority that is taking place,” Brownback said.
Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien