A U.S. diplomat just back from his first trip to North Korea described the communist nation as among the world's worst violators of human rights yet reported Thursday that a government minister had asked him to return for more discussions.
"They were willing to talk about human rights. They were willing to look at some of the issues that we are raising with them," Robert R. King, the Obama administration's special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, told a House committee.
He said the North Korean official, Kim Kye-gwan, "invited me back to have a discussion on human rights and I look forward to possibly having that opportunity," King said. He said the first vice minister of foreign affairs had indicated during their 20-minute conversation that North Korea was ready to keep talking.
King was appointed to the job in November 2009 but hadn't gone to North Korea before his trip last week. The visit, primarily intended to assess North Korea's request for food aid, was the first in 18 months by any high-level U.S. official to the North, which has advanced its nuclear weapons programs during the interim.
In his prepared testimony, King said his position "exists because North Korea remains one of the worst human rights violators in the world" and the State Department has found the situation under Kim Jong Il's rule to be "deplorable."
A recent department report raised concern about the torture of political prisoners, the denial of freedom of speech, the use of forced labor, the severe punishment of repatriated asylum seekers and the trafficking of girls and women into neighboring China.
King said the U.S. had not decided whether to provide the food aid. He acknowledged that South Korea, one of Washington's strongest allies in Asia, opposed it.
A U.S. food assessment team that accompanied King planned to return later this week, he said.
If the U.S. determines there is a legitimate need, he said, the North still would have to address serious concerns about monitoring the aid distribution. It also would have to account for 22,000 tons of food left behind when North Korea terminated the last American handouts in 2009.
A U.N. report in March said that more than 6 million people, about one-quarter of the North's population, requires emergency aid after summer floods and a harsh winter hit staple crops.
South Korea and critics in the U.S. question whether the North's need is so dire and if any aid would be diverted to the powerful military or ruling elite, ahead of the centennial in 2012 of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung.
"There should be strong opposition in the Congress to any attempt to provide food assistance paid for by the American taxpayer for more bread and circuses in Pyongyang," said Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who heads the committee.