The human rights situation in reclusive North Korea is one of the worst in the world, declared the new U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea on Monday while in Seoul.
Robert King, who took office just six weeks ago, is currently visiting South Korea on a fact-finding mission. He will meet with North Korean defectors and government officials in Seoul this week. This is his first overseas trip since assuming his position.
"It (North Korea) is one of the worst places in terms of the lack of human rights. The situation is appalling," King told reporters in Seoul.
"To improve relations between the U.S. and North Korea will have to involve a greater respect for human rights by North Korea," King stated. "That's one of the important conditions."
King's strong remarks come as Pyongyang expressed Monday its desire for warmer relations with long-time foe Washington. The United States has long been antagonistic towards North Korea because of the reclusive country's determination to build nuclear weapons and its erratic and dangerous behaviors towards its neighbors.
On Monday, North Korea said it wants to hold talks on a treaty to formally end the Korean War and to end sanctions imposed against it before reengaging in six-party nuclear disarmament talks.
North and South Korea have technically been at war since the treaty officially ended the 1950-53 conflict. The United States fought for the South while China backed the communist North.
"The conclusion of the peace treaty will help terminate the hostile relations between the DPRK and the U.S. and positively promote the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula at a rapid tempo," read the North's statement, as posted by the state-media.
The United States has no direct diplomatic relations with North Korea. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang looks after Washington's interest in North Korea.
In addition to his remarks about human rights, King also said the United States is trying to find out more information about the situation of Robert Park, an American Christian activist who entered North Korea on Christmas Day.
"We are actively working to find out where he is being held and to urge that he be released," King said in regards to Park. "We have requested that our protecting power in Pyongyang (the Swedish embassy) determine his condition and we have not heard what that is."
Many believe that North Korea indirectly confirmed that Park was in its custody when the government ran a story on the state-media that said authorities had arrested a U.S. citizen for illegally entering the country on Christmas Eve. The report said it was investigating the U.S. citizen.
Park had entered North Korea in order to pressure leader Kim Jong-il to improve human rights in the country, including shutting down prison camps and opening the country up to humanitarian aid agencies.
The Christian activist's hard-to-believe trespass was meant to draw international attention to the human rights abuse in the reclusive country.
There are about 160,000 political prisoners in prison camps across North Korea, according to South Korean and American government estimates based on testimonies from former prisoners. An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 of the inmates are Christians who were arrested only because of their faith. The totalitarian regime bans Christianity and has publically executed citizens found possessing a Bible.
Last week, the ministry Open Doors released its World Watch List for 2010. North Korea topped the list of the world's worst persecutor of Christians for the eight straight year.
"There is no other country in the world where Christians are persecuted in such a horrible and systematic manner," said Carl Moeller, president/CEO of Open Doors USA. "Three generations of a family are often thrown into prison when one member is incarcerated."
This year, Open Doors plans to encourage Christians around the world to join believers inside North Korea in prayer campaigns for freedom to exist in the country. The ministry will also focus more effort on its "Free to Believe" campaign, which lobbies members of the United Nations to protect religious freedom.