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Defectors, rights groups urge parliament to pass N. Korean rights bill

A group of North Korean defectors and civic activists on Monday urged South Korea's parliament to pass a bill aimed at improving the human rights situation in the reclusive communist state.

In an opening ceremony for "North Korea Freedom Week," some 100 Seoul-based defectors, human rights advocates and lawmakers gathered in the National Assembly to discuss ways to abolish gulags in the North and pass a pending bill designed to help improve the North's dismal human rights record.

North Korea has long been accused of human rights abuses, ranging from holding hundreds of thousands of political prisoners to torture and public executions. Pyongyang denies the accusations, calling them a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.

"Representing 24 million North Korean people who are suffering from human rights abuse under the Kim Jong-il regime, we appeal South Korean lawmakers to pass the North Korean human rights bill," the coalition of 27 defector groups said in a statement.

South Korea has received more than 20,000 North Korean defectors since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. The U.S. has given about 100 North Koreans asylum since the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

The annual event, which had usually been held in Washington, D.C. since 2004 to promote human rights and freedom in the North, has come to Seoul this year for the second straight time to provide the growing number of Seoul-based defectors and activist groups with a chance to get involved.

The North Korea Freedom Coalition, a U.S. civic rights group led by Seoul Peace Prize laureate Suzanne Scholte, hosts the event.

"I feel heavyhearted and sorry for not being able to pass the North Korean human rights law at the National Assembly ... although South Korea is obliged to take care of North Korean people," said Kim Moo-sung, the floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party. "I am considering whether to invoke my authority to present the law."

Unification Minister Hyun In-taek also urged the parliament to pass the bill promptly.

"We are well aware that the enactment of the North Korea human rights law does not hamper development of inter-Korean relations," Hyun said. "I think such a claim is very emotional and irresponsible."

The North Korea human rights bill has been stuck in limbo for years in the South Korean parliament, blocked by opposition lawmakers out of concern that the proposed bill could further sour inter-Korean relations, which plunged to their lowest ebb in decades following the North's deadly attacks on the South last year.

South Korea was to follow suit after the United States passed legislation in 2004 to help North Korean defectors settle in the U.S. and promote democracy in the reclusive communist country, while Japan passed a similar law in 2006.

Song Yoon-bok, the leader of a Japan-based non-profit group "No Fence," said Pyongyang has dug several underground tunnels to kill political prisoners in the event that the South or the U.S. topples the totalitarian regime.

"North Korea is preparing mass killings, considering that testimonies about prison camps would work against them," Song said.

According to the Unification Ministry, the Pyongyang regime is holding more than 150,000 people in political prison camps and executing many residents, including political prisoners and defectors' families, without due legal process. (Yonhap News)