North Korea admits UK human rights team

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The Independent Online

North Korea has permitted a British ministerial delegation to be the first outsider to scrutinise its appalling human rights record. Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister, arrives in Pyongyang today, with his department's human rights specialist, Jon Benjamin, with a brief to investigate widespread allegations of prison camp torture, medical experiments on humans and random abductions.

North Korea has permitted a British ministerial delegation to be the first outsider to scrutinise its appalling human rights record. Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister, arrives in Pyongyang today, with his department's human rights specialist, Jon Benjamin, with a brief to investigate widespread allegations of prison camp torture, medical experiments on humans and random abductions.

The British mission will try to confirm the disturbing allegations that have prompted the UN human rights commission to demand an investigation.

Mr Rammell intends to impress on the world's last true Communist regime that if North Korea agrees to let human rights monitors into the country, and to end its nuclear weapons programme in line with an internationally agreed timeframe, "all sorts of positives can come its way. Isolation is the alternative route".

Britain is offering increased humanitarian aid in return for such gestures by Kim Jong Il, the country's dictator. Pyongyang has diplomatic relations with Britain and sees that as a channel to Washington.

Mr Rammell says he has "realistic expectations". The visit was allowed only after the North Koreans dropped objections to the team focusing on human rights, in addition to Pyongyang's clandestine nuclear weapons programme, which is on the agenda of six-party talks. Britain is not involved in the nuclear talks but has influence as a permanent UN Security Council member.

Satellite photographs have revealed a network of prison camps, where tens of thousands of inmates work as slaves in mining, logging and farming. Defectors say political prisoners are used to test chemical and biological weapons. One former North Korean army intelligence officer told the BBC in February that he had seen prisoners gassed to death.

Collective punishment is used against families who speak out against the regime, and Amnesty International has reports of public executions. Acute food shortages have forced tens of thousands of people across the border into China. If they are caught there, they are forcibly repatriated to North Korea and sent to camps for months of hard labour.

There is also concern about Japanese and South Koreans kidnapped by the North Koreans to train spies. But because of the nature of the regime, the claims have been difficult to verify. "They say it just doesn't happen, which I have to say lacks credibility," Mr Rammell said. He hopes to return with a commitment from North Korea for a return visit by Mr Benjamin. He is also calling on Pyongyang to admit a UN special rapporteur, as demanded by the UN human rights commission at its last session in April.

The claims of gross human rights violations in North Korea are "among the worst I have seen anywhere in the world", Mr Rammell added.

On the nuclear front, Britain hopes to persuade North Korea to continue the six-party process aimed at ending its nuclear programme which, intelligence services believe, has produced one or two nuclear weapons. But in the absence of UN weapons inspectors, expelled from the country in October 2002, it is difficult to know the extent of nuclear production.

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