SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea's 'appalling' human rights situation must improve before the country can expect to normalize relations with the United States, President Barack Obama's special envoy on the issue said Monday.
In comments certain to anger North Korea, Robert King blasted its human rights record as a U.S. citizen remains under detention for crossing into the communist country last month without permission.
"It's one of the worst places in terms of lack of human rights," King told reporters after meeting South Korea's foreign minister. "The situation is appalling."
King said that is preventing the normalization of ties between Washington and Pyongyang, which have never had diplomatic relations and remain locked in a standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
"Improved relations between the United States and North Korea will have to involve greater respect for human rights by North Korea," he said.
King, a former staff director on the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, is on his first visit overseas as special envoy for North Korean human rights. The position was created in 2005 by Congress to raise the issue of human rights and provide assistance to refugees fleeing North Korea.
King plans to travel to Japan on Friday. He has no plans to visit North Korea, though said he would be "happy to go" if Pyongyang invited him.
King called on North Korea to release the U.S. citizen it is holding, but acknowledged that Washington had little information on the person.
"We are actively working to find out where he is being held and to urge that he be released," King said. "We have requested that our protecting power in Pyongyang determine his condition and we have not heard yet what that is."
In the absence of diplomatic relations, Sweden represents the United States in North Korea.
North Korea announced late last month that it was holding a U.S. citizen for "illegally entering" the country through the North Korea-China border, though did not elaborate. He is widely believed to be Robert Park, an American missionary who South Korean activists say crossed into the country over a frozen river several days earlier to raise the issue of human rights in the North.
King declined to say whether Washington believes Park is the one being held, citing privacy issues and State Department regulations.
North Korea has long been regarded as having one of the world's worst human rights records. The country holds some 154,000 political prisoners in six large camps across the country, according to South Korean government estimates.
Pyongyang denies the existence of prison camps and often reacts strongly to foreign criticism regarding human rights.
Asked if the U.S. plans to make human rights an agenda item at six-nation talks aimed at achieving the North's denuclearization, King said Washington planned to raise the issue with North Korea at the forum.
"We will hold bilateral discussions in the context of the six-party talks, he said, referring to a U.S.-North Korea subgroup that is part of the forum.
North Korea quit the six-nation talks, which began in 2003, last year, though has suggested it may eventually return. They involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Separately, Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nations' special investigator on human rights in North Korea, kicked off a six-day visit to South Korea to meet government officials, civic activists and North Korean defectors.