NORTH AND SOUTH KOREA TALK BUT NOT ABOUT NUCLEAR CAPABILITIES OR HUMAN RIGHTS

Shin Dong-kyuk is the only man known to have been born and to escape from a North Korean prison known as Camp 14. A memoir detailing Shin Dong-hyuk’s life, “Escape from Camp 14” was published in English last year and recently hit the bookshelves in South Korea this month.

The unflinching account from a defector revealed how he picked corn kernels out of cow manure to eat as he competed with his family for food at one of North Korea’s notorious prison camps. He was also forced to watch his mother’s hanging and his brother’s execution.

He was born in a “total control zone” where prison authorities wield complete power and where guards beat children to death with no hesitation. His account put a human face on the abuses in North Korean prison camps, a brutal system which has survived twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and much longer than the Nazi concentration camps.

In March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva agreed to examine what it called “grave, widespread and systematic” violations of human rights in North Korea, including the use of prison camps.

South Korea, for its part does not avoid its share of international condemnation. Margaret Sekaggya, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, concluded a 10-day visit to South Korea on Friday by offering some harsh criticism for the country’s treatment of activists, who she said are subjected to harassment, physical violence, intimidation and unlawful surveillance due to their criticism of government policies. Ms. Sekaggya said that South Korea does not meet international standards in several areas, including the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association and labor rights, even though the country’s constitution guarantees them.

North and South Korean officials meet in Seoul on Wednesday and Thursday for their first high-level dialogue in six years. The meeting will be the first dialogue at a senior level since Kim Jong Un took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il in 2011.

The two Koreas agreed that in the talks in Seoul they would discuss reopening their joint industrial complex, as well as resuming cross-border tours and the Red Cross programs of reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The industrial complex in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and cross-border tours to the Diamond Mountain resort in southeastern North Korea had been two of the best-known symbols of South Korea’s past efforts to use economic cooperation to encourage the North to open up.

Prominently absent in the agenda for the Korean talks was any direct mention of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, or any discussion on the known human right abuses taking place in North and South Korea. Under Mr. Kim, North Korea has declared that it is no longer interested in talks on ending its nuclear weapons program, and its ruling Workers’ Party adopted a national strategy of reviving the country’s moribund economy while continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal. Regarding human rights abuses, officials from both countries deny any wrongdoing.

Dialogue at any level marks a positive sign in the countries’ recent history, which has seen North Korean nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches and “military exercises” by the South. However, given the importance of subjects such as the danger of nuclear weapons and the infringement on human rights by both countries, it is hoped that these talks are only the beginning of further discussions between the neighboring countries, which would ultimately include input from other interested parties and nongovernmental agencies.