UK minister tackles North Koreans on human rights abuse

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The Independent Online

Britain placed human rights at the heart of its relationship with North Korea last night as the Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell arrived in Pyong-yang to take the measure of the world's most reclusive Communist state.

Britain placed human rights at the heart of its relationship with North Korea last night as the Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell arrived in Pyong-yang to take the measure of the world's most reclusive Communist state.

Mr Rammell, making the first visit to North Korea by a British minister, made it clear from the outset of his first meeting, with the vice-foreign minister for Europe, Kung Sok Ung, that he would raise the "very serious human rights allegations'' during three days of talks.

The visit went ahead only after North Korea agreed to discuss human rights as well as the thorny nuclear issue that has bedevilled the country's relations with the rest of the world since it announced that it had a nuclear weapon in 2002.

Mr Rammell told the minister he welcomed the addition of human rights to the agenda. Mr Kung failed to respond directly at their foreign ministry meeting.

The British delegation last night raised specific human rights cases that will be discussed in more detail tomorrow. These include the fate of a former North Korean ambassador to Indonesia who was sent to labour camp, and that of two abducted South Korean pastors.

Mr Rammell and his team, which included the Foreign Office expert on human rights, Jon Benjamin, are calling for North Korea to admit a UN human rights investigator for a return trip by Mr Benjamin.

But a brief spat less than an hour later highlighted the extent of the hard-line government's paranoia, when official minders refused to allow a television camera into a new food market despite having given prior agreement.

After a short stand-off during which Mr Rammell cooled his heels outside the blue-roofed market - the produce ranged from dried squid to dog meat - his party and the camera were allowed inside.

Diplomats say that such well-stocked markets, which were introduced in the wake of monetary reform that pegged all foreign currency exchanges to the euro in 2002, are the sign of a timid liberalisation that could keep food shortages at bay.

Yet Pyongyang still looks like a city built for war, from its limitless airport runway to its deep underground Soviet-era metro and the wide avenues virtually devoid of traffic on a Saturday afternoon. About 30 military trucks were parked outside the foreign ministry yesterday.

Militaristic billboards are everywhere in the one-party state devoted to the cult of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung, whose picture greets visitors from the airport terminal.

In central Pyongyang, dominated by austere grey buildings and monuments to his memory, soldiers raise their fists over the slogan "think and work and live according to the requirements of Sungun politics'', the policy that places the military at the vanguard of society.

Even though the party and military elite live in Pyongyang, their fear of the outside world is palpable. Talking to foreigners is actively discouraged unless the conversations are officially approved. When journalists entered a metro car at Buhung station, where patriotic music plays in the background, two people quietly slipped out of the car.

A student, who agreed to a short conversation in the presence of a government minder, was asked how much her salary would be when she found work in a hotel after completing her course. The salary is not important, she replied. "I try to repay the care of the government,'' she said.

A group of men was reading the sports news on a stand inside the metro. One of them, a surgeon named Jang Ji Min, described how he had watched the Olympic Games on television. What was his impression?

He chatted affably for a few minutes, saying he was naturally pleased at the victory of the North Korean medal for weightlifting, and was impressed by the Chinese divers.

He added: "By seeing the play of sportsmen on television I realised how they tried their best to glorify our country by having a great success at the Games.''

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