By Jung Sung-ki
North Korea Wednesday denounced calls by South Korea to improve its human rights situation.
Pyongyang warned that such a demand would severely harm inter-Korean relations, calling it an intervention in its domestic affairs.
On Monday, a Seoul official urged Pyongyang to take ``appropriate measures'' to address its human rights abuses in a keynote speech to the seventh session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
The remarks made by Park In-kook, deputy foreign minister for international organizations and global issues, signaled the Lee Myung-bak government's tougher policy line on the issue, North Korea experts said.
``South Korea will have to be responsible for the irresponsible remarks which will have negative repercussions,'' Choe Myong-nam, a councilor at North Korea's diplomatic mission to Geneva, said during Tuesday's session, using a right of reply.
Choe said South Korea's calls on the North's human rights situation would damage the inter-Korean reconciliation mood developed by two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007.
He also criticized the European Union's call for extending the mandate of the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, saying it is ``extremely politicized.''
North Korea has long been accused of human rights abuse such as public executions, political prison camps, torture and restricting freedom of expression and religious practice.
Human rights groups at home and abroad criticized the liberal governments of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun for taking a low-profile approach toward alleged human rights abuses in the North, fearing that such a move would damage their flagship ``sunshine'' policy of engaging the poverty-stricken North.
Last November, South Korea abstained from a U.N. vote on a resolution condemning North Korea's human rights violations, which critics called a lukewarm and ``two-faced'' approach toward the human rights issue in North Korea.
The government voted for a similar resolution in 2006 when North Korea test-launched several medium and long-range missiles into the East Sea and conducted its first-ever nuclear test.
From 2003 to 2005, however, the government did not participate in, or abstained from, the U.N.'s votes on the North's human rights record in order not to provoke North Korea.
In a major turnaround, however, center-right President Lee Myung-bak has pledged to take a tougher but more pragmatic line on the North than before. He made it clear that South Korea will demand more reciprocity from North Korea and not hesitate to criticize Pyongyang's ``shortcomings,'' such as its human rights situation.
``I assure you that there will be a change from the previous government's practice of avoiding criticism of North Korea and unilaterally flattering it,'' Lee said in a nationally televised press conference Dec. 20, a day after winning a landslide victory in the presidential election. ``Criticism that comes with affection can help make North Korean society healthy and improve the lives of its people in the long run.''
According to government records, about 19,000 South Korean soldiers went missing in action during the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a permanent peace treaty. North Korean agents kidnapped about 485 South Koreans since the end of the war, they said.
The government estimates some 560 South Korean prisoners of war (POWs) are still alive in the North. Pyongyang, however, denies holding any South Korean against his or her will.