SKorea puts ties with North ahead of UN vote

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Seoul, Nov 21: South Korea abstained from a UN vote condemning North Korea for its abysmal human rights record so as not to offend its prickly neighbour or derail reconciliation plans, government officials said today.

Human rights groups accused President Roh Moo-hyun's government of putting its short-term goals ahead of international concerns of abuses by back tracking from its stand a year ago when it voted in favour of a similar UN measure.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said the abstention was due to its ''unique position'' with the North. A presidential spokesman said the decision was made by Roh, a former human rights lawyer, ''based on the improving ties'' with the North.

The UN human rights panel yesterday adopted a resolution expressing concern about systematic and widespread rights abuses in North Korea by a vote of 97-23. South Korea abstained with 59 other countries.

North Korea maintains a network of political prison camps housing hundreds of thousands where torture and murder are common, human rights groups and governments such as the United States have said.

''The decision to abstain is truly a duplicitous move for a country that produced the U.N. secretary general,'' said Park Sang-hak, a former refugee from North Korea and now an activist based in Seoul.

South Korea's Ban Ki-moon took the top UN job early this year.

''How can South Korea claim to play a role in the international community when it turns its back on a universal value of mankind?'' Park said.

Roh, who has three months left in office, held a rare summit with the North's leader Kim Jong-il in October. Roh has since pushed numerous projects that could pump billions of dollars worth of aid into the impoverished North.

Analysts said Roh, who is barred from seeking another term, may be trying to improve ties with North Korea to secure a better legacy for what has been a largely unpopular presidency.


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