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North Korea stands at a crossroads. After half a century of rigid isolation and its notoriously failed policy of "self-reliance," this impoverished country has cautiously begun to seek better diplomatic ties and more foreign investment. Now, British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell has been invited to visit this once-hermetically sealed country. Mr Rammell begins historic talks with North Korea in Pyongyang on Sunday.

Nuclear proliferation will be one important focus of Rammell's visit, but the meetings also look set to include another key issue in Mr Rammell's brief: human rights. He is accompanied on his trip by the head of the human rights division at the Foreign Office. North Korea's readiness to receive the delegation is, put simply, extraordinary.

When confronted on its human rights record, the regime of the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, who has proved a shrewdly capable dictator, has always flatly denied that a problem exists. After Human Rights Watch and others submitted reports on North Korea to the United Nations human rights commission last year, the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - as North Korea is officially known - responded with a terse English-language statement: "There exists no 'human rights issue' in DPRK as all its people form a big family and live in harmony helping and leading one another forward under the man-centred socialist system."

In reality, North Korea has such a long record of systematic abuses that it is one of the most repressive governments in the world. There is no freedom of the press or religion. There is no labour activism, no independent civil society and no political opposition permitted. Basic services, such as access to health care and education, are parcelled out according to a classification scheme that divides people into three groups - "core," "wavering," and "hostile" - based on the government's assessment of their and their family's political loyalty.

But the worst abuses occur when an individual is suspected of having tried to exercise one of the many basic freedoms that are prohibited. Perceived troublemakers are arrested, permitted no contact with family or legal counsel, forced to confess under often brutal torture, and sent to prison. Those in prison face cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; many die because of mistreatment, malnutrition and lack of medical care.

For political crimes, whether actual or perceived, it is common for the perpetrator's entire family to be sent to forced labour camps, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Even if the families avoid such a fate, they are often barred from good jobs or higher education. The number of political prisoners held in prisons is reckoned to be as many as 200,000 - nearly 1 per cent of the entire population.

Abuses of North Koreans are not necessarily restricted by the country's borders. The famine in the mid-1990s, which may have killed as many as two million people, drove tens of thousands of North Koreans across the border into China to find food.

Many live in hiding today as North Korean agents hunt and repatriate them for the crime of leaving their country without state permission. Instead of treating them as refugees under international law, Chinese authorities arrest them as illegal immigrants. Women and children often become victims of violence, trafficking and sexual slavery, but have no legal means of redress.

Once repatriated, North Koreans face detention, torture and even execution if they are found to have had contact with Westerners or South Koreans, especially missionaries. Such executions are reportedly carried out in public, often in the presence of children. Meanwhile, North Korea's children have been by far the biggest victims of the famine. Many lost their parents to hunger, have become stunted for life themselves, and are reportedly spending more time trying to find food than in classrooms.

But Pyongyang seems to realize that things cannot go on as they were. It has opened diplomatic relations with 19 countries in the past few years, including Britain and a host of other European nations. Last year it launched a market-oriented economic reform. There are now bustling new markets in Pyongyang and huge billboards advertising consumer goods. A South Korean conglomerate is building a new multimillion industrial complex in southwestern North Korea, which the government hopes will bring in more foreign currency.

As Mr Rammell and others journey to Pyongyang, it is essential to remember that moves towards building better diplomatic relations and more foreign investment can be meaningful only if, in addition to addressing issues of international security, they also result in concrete improvements for the North Korean people. Britain can make a difference if it gains commitments from Pyongyang to allow humanitarian organizations better access within the country to deliver badly needed food and health care; if it can gain access for the United Nations and non-governmental organizations to North Korean prisons - and, above all, if North Korea agrees to take seriously the rights of its people to fundamental freedoms.

Kay Seok tracks North Korea for Human Rights Watch.

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