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Thursday, 27 December, 2001, 13:32 GMT
North Korea offers amnesty
North Korean soldiers
Pyongyang is sensitive of its human rights record
By Caroline Gluck in Seoul

North Korea has announced a rare amnesty for prisoners to mark next year's 90th birthday anniversary of the late President Kim Il-Sung.

EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten (l), Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson and North Korean President Kim Jong Il (r)
President Kim Jong-Il told the Europeans he was ready to discuss human rights

The amnesty is the first of its kind in more than 20 years.

North Korea's central broadcasting station said the decision had been endorsed two weks ago by the decision-making body - the Supreme People's Assembly.

The amnesty is due to go into effect on 1 January and reports say will be granted to those sentenced to labour or re-education for committing crimes against the state.

The US State Department and human rights groups have long accused North Korea of holding thousands of political prisoners in horrendous conditions.

Human rights

Kim Il-Sung's birthday, which falls on 15 April, is celebrated as one of the country's biggest national holidays.

Observers see this amnesty, the first since 1978, as an attempt to reduce international criticism of the country's human rights record.

Late President Kim Il-Sung
Kim Il-Sung would have been 90 next year

Many prisoners were sent to camps after being caught in China in search of food.

The reports did not make clear how many people will be amnestied, or specify the crimes to be covered by the amnesty.

North Korea says it has no political prisoners and information and access to the country is still tightly restricted.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have been unable to independently verify reports of ill-treatment.

Last year, Pyongyang submitted its first report to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in nearly 17 years.

Earlier this year, during a landmark visit by a European Union delegation, North Korean President Kim Jong-Il said he was ready to begin discussions on the country's human rights record.

See also:

04 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea threatens military build-up
22 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
S Korea owns up to missile test
20 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
WHO open for business in Pyongyang
03 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea welcomes EU visit
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