By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Human rights abuses in North Korea, including violations of religious freedom, are a “matter of discussion” ahead of a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a senior official said on Tuesday.
While the United States has long criticized Pyongyang for rights abuses, a possible meeting in Singapore on June 12 would be the first opportunity for a sitting U.S. president to directly raise the issue with the North Korean leader.
“This is a matter of discussion,” Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said to reporters at an event to mark the release of the U.S. State Department’s 2017 International Religious Freedom Report.
The report, which also referred to attacks by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya Muslim minority, documents abuses in 200 countries and territories.
“You’ve got a gulag system operating in North Korea, and it’s been a terrible situation for … many years,” said Brownback, adding that North Korea had long been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” in the religious freedom report.
Asked whether he expected the issue to be raised in the talks with Pyongyang, Brownback said: “I think they’re raising all of these issues.”
While talks are expected to focus mainly on North Korea’s denuclearization and its security, the United Nations and other groups have urged the United States not to neglect human rights.
The report accused North Korea of dealing “harshly” with people who engaged in almost any religious practice, through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. It said an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in a political prison camp system in remote areas “under horrific conditions.”
Brownback also named Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Eritrea and Turkmenistan as countries where suppression of religious life was a “particular concern.”
And he called on the international community to act to end attacks by government forces in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Fighting between the military and ethnic minority insurgents has displaced more than 5,000 people.
“We must do more to help them as they continue to be targeted for their faith,” said Brownback. “I believe it is ethnic cleansing of a religious minority that is taking place,” he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking at the unveiling of the report, said he would host counterparts and religious groups for a meeting on July 25-26 to try to “reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right.”
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)