WASHINGTON -- The United States is "very engaged" in efforts to end North Korea's human rights abuses as the two sides prepare for a potential meeting between their leaders next month, a senior US official said Tuesday.
Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told reporters the issue is being discussed at the highest levels ahead of the summit expected for June 12 in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who conveyed Trump’s oral message concerning the North Korea-US summit, on May 10. (AP-Yonhap)
"In a sense it already has (been raised), with the three people that were released that the Secretary (of State Mike Pompeo) brought back," Brownback said at a press briefing announcing the release of the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom.
Pompeo flew to Pyongyang earlier this month to lay the groundwork for the summit, which, if held, would focus on dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program. On that visit, North Korea released three US prisoners in a show of good faith.
"The president is right on point on North Korea. He's very engaged on this, as you know," Brownback said. "The secretary is very engaged on this. And I think they're raising all of these issues ... so this is a matter of discussion."
US citizen Kim Dong-chul was escorted to a trial in Pyongyang in April 2016. (AP)
North Korea is accused of various human rights abuses, including torture, public executions and keeping an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some for religious reasons. Without addressing them, some say it will be difficult for the US to normalize relations with North Korea regardless of any progress on the nuclear issue.
Pompeo told a congressional hearing last week that he raised the human rights issue when he met with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.
"It will be part of the discussions as we move forward," he said, declining to answer whether it could be part of any denuclearization agreement with the regime. "We have broad outlines of what it is each nation is prepared to do."
The new report cites religious and human right groups as providing accounts of members of underground churches in North Korea being arrested, beaten, tortured and killed because of their religious beliefs.
"What we know is that you've got a gulag system operating in North Korea, and it's been a terrible situation for many years," Brownback said. "You can go on satellite, open-source satellite, and see some of these camps and the situation. You have people that have gotten out and have written about the situation in North Korea. We know it's very difficult and desperate, and particularly for people of faith."
The official noted that North Korea has remained a "Country of Particular Concern" for violations of religious freedom, a designation under US law that was renewed for the 17th consecutive year in December. (Yonhap)