North Korea set to allow return for British civil rights scrutineer

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North Korea yesterday signalled that it may decide to lift the veil on some of its human rights violations after being challenged to allow the inspection of one of the country's notorious prison camps, where up to 200,000 political prisoners may be held.

North Korea yesterday signalled that it may decide to lift the veil on some of its human rights violations after being challenged to allow the inspection of one of the country's notorious prison camps, where up to 200,000 political prisoners may be held.

The Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell confronted North Korea's top official responsible for human rights, Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon, with satellite photographs available in the West of the camp network, on the final day of a three-day visit to the reclusive communist country.

The North Korean Minister showed no interest in the pictures when they were pushed across the table at the Korean Foreign Ministry. Mr Rammell, who was accompanied by the Foreign Office expert on human rights Jon Benjamin, also gave the Korean Minister two copies of a report by the US committee for human rights in North Korea, The hidden gulag, in the Korean language.

The Minister told Mr Rammell, who has aggressively pursued the human rights agenda during his talks in Pyongyang, that "we need more trust and confidence" before such a visit could be arranged.

"Ideally what we want is unfettered access to any of them," Mr Rammell said. He is pressing for a return visit to the country and for North Korea to admit the UN special rapporteur, Vikit Munthabhorn of Thailand, who was named by the UN commission for human rights at its last session in April.

In a concession, Mr Choe gave preliminary approval for a return visit by the British human rights expert, and agreed to meet with Mr Rammell next Monday in New York for follow-up talks as to whether to allow international scrutiny of North Korea's human rights record.

Mr Rammell he said he was "optimistic" that Mr Choe could be persuaded to allow the UN investigator into the country in order to improve relations with the outside world.

According to The hidden gulag: exposing North Korea's prison camps, North Korea has three types of labour camps where according to the report's author, David Hawk, "the injustices and cruelty these prisoners suffer is almost unimaginable".

"Beyond a starvation diet, torture, beatings and inhumane living and working conditions, this regime practices a form of collective punishment where three generations of family members are giving life terms along with the family member charged with political crimes."

The report details conditions in North Korea's six political penal labour camps known as Kwan-Li-So, where tens of thousands of political prisoners work as slaves in mining, logging and farming enterprises.

However for the first time, the North Koreans did agree to discuss specific human rights cases raised by Mr Rammell and his team. The British had already raised four cases of concern, including the fate of two South Korean pastors and two former diplomats.

The British yesterday submitted a further list to the North Koreans, including 18 individual cases, as well as a number of North Koreans who had applied for asylum in China. Beijing, a close ally of North Korea, has a policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans who have fled across the border.

Mr Choe was also asked about allegations in a BBC documentary which detailed the testing of chemical and biological weapons on political prisoners. He responded with a strong denial. "This doesn't happen in the 21st century in North Korea", he said.

Meanwhile, The North Korean government last night made a significant concession to calm international fears of a nuclear crisis by announcing that Britain's ambassador to Pyongyang could travel to the site of a massive explosion as early as today (Tues).

The decision, announced by North Korea's Vice-Minister for European Affairs, Kung Sok Ung, came after the visiting British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell had just completed three days of talks in Pyongyang aimed at improving relations with the secretive communist state.

Mr Rammell welcomed the decision for ambassador David Slinn to travel to the closed area near the Chinese border where the explosion was staged last Thursday, on the 56th anniversary of the establishment of North Korea.

"Having asked the Vice-Minister this morning for our ambassador and other ambassadors to be allowed to visit the scene of the explosion, I am very pleased North Korea has agreed to the visit," Mr Rammell said.

Mr Slinn is unlikely to travel to the remote mountainous region today but intends to go as soon as possible.

The explosion was reported on Sunday by the South Korean news agency Yonhap which said it sent a huge "mushroom cloud" over Kimhyongjik county, triggering fears of a nuclear test by North Korea which has boasted that it possesses a nuclear weapon.

Yesterday, after pressing requests from Britain and America, the Vice-Minister responsible for nuclear matters, Kim Gye Gwan, told Mr Rammell that the explosion was not an accident, but the "controlled demolition of the mountain" as part of the construction of a hydro-electric power project.