WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- A U.S. lawmaker said the North Korean government has a longstanding legacy as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, by a voice vote, passed a bill on to the Senate that would authorize support for human rights programs and non-government controlled information in North Korea.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Pyongyang is among the most brutal regimes in the world.
"Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are forced into slave labor, starved, and tortured to death in isolated camps," she said in a statement in support of the measure. "Even outside the camps, the North Korean people enjoy no freedoms of speech, religion, press, or assembly."
A coalition of 40 human rights organizations and activists last month submitted a petition to the U.N. Human Rights Council calling for action to shut down the country's forced labor system.
Human Rights Watch, a member of the coalition, said as many as 200,000 people are in the North Korean gulag system.
Apart from forced labor, the rights coalition said, North Korean prisoners are subject to routine torture, rape and extrajudicial killing.