Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - The new Japanese government should take a leadership role in helping to improve human rights conditions in North Korea, Human Rights Watch and three other nongovernmental organizations said today in a letter to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Human Rights Watch, Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, and The Society to Help Returnees to North Korea also urged Japan to address the plight of North Korean refugees and the fate of those who migrated from Japan to North Korea between 1959 and 1984.

"Abuses against North Koreans take place right on Japan's doorstep, but Japan has been largely silent on human rights issues except for abductions of Japanese citizens," said Kanae Doi, Tokyo director at Human Rights Watch. "The new Japanese government should lead the way in raising wider human rights issues with North Korea."

The letter noted that Japan has raised awareness about North Korea's human rights conditions, especially the plight of Japanese abductees, by co-sponsoring several United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions condemning human rights violations in North Korea. Most recently, the European Union and Japan submitted a new resolution to the General Assembly in late October 2009.

The letter notes that "Japan can play a stronger and more proactive role in promoting and protecting the human rights situation in North Korea by raising human rights issues in future dialogues with North Korea, pressing China to protect and recognize North Korean refugees, accepting North Korean refugees who do not have ties to Japan, and continuing to accept former migrants to North Korea who return to Japan."

More than 93,000 people migrated from Japan to North Korea from 1959 to 1984 under a campaign by pro-North Korea groups that advertised North Korea as a "heaven on earth." The migrants include Japanese citizens, former citizens, former residents, and their spouses and children. According to North Korean escapees, the North Korean government eventually sent not a small number of them to labor camps where they died of hunger, lack of medical care, and physical abuse. Japan has resettled a small number of former Japanese residents who escaped, but has no explicit policy on their resettlement.

"Improving human rights conditions in a country such as North Korea is a daunting task, but Japan should not waste this opportunity to help North Koreans both in and outside the country," Doi said.