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International relations

US blasts North Korea on human rights ahead of historic summit

State Department report also touches on Pyongyang's past abductions of Japanese

NEW YORK -- The U.S. ratcheted up criticism of North Korea over its "egregious human rights violations" in the State Department's annual human rights report on Friday as the two countries prepared for their first-ever summit.

North Korea is one of the most repressive and abusive regimes in the world, Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan said at a Washington news briefing to announce the release.

In a written preface, Sullivan cited China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as examples of governments that "violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result."

No signs of detente are evident from the text, which expands on the previous year's observations with additional developments, including the reported assassination of the North Korean leader's brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia via an illegal nerve agent and the execution of five Ministry of State Security officials.

"We are concerned" about the nuclear issue in North Korea, "but we're equally concerned about the human rights issue, and they both derive from the same problem," said Michael Kozak of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, after Sullivan's opening remarks.

"I don't think you will see a diminishment in our concern about that issue even as we try to work the nuclear issue," said Kozak, who added that "it's not a trade-off."

The report also touches on the North's past abductions of Japanese nationals. Pyongyang maintains that all remaining abductees have died and said it had no news after concluding a reinvestigation in 2015.

"During the year there was no progress in the investigation into the whereabouts of 12 Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted" by North Korea, the State Department report said in its new report.

Tokyo has long lobbied Washington to press Pyongyang on the abduction issue, which featured in this week's Mar-a-Lago summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump pledged to take up the matter with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. "We will bring up the abductees. We'll bring up many different things," he said before meeting with Abe on Wednesday.

"We certainly don't consider the issue resolved," Kozak told reporters in New York via videoconference.

"Hopefully [that] is reflected in the report," he said.

Kozak could not predict whether Trump would push human rights during the summit with Kim. But he argued that the U.S. already has alongside its denuclearization efforts. "I don't think it's incompatible to do both things together," he said.

"I think it's very clear that we're already on a course where we're ... concerned about both things, we're pursuing both things," said Kozak, who noted that the price of solving one is not to stop pursuing the other.

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