U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday he will work toward the release of three South Korean women believed to have been in North Korean custody for decades.
The U.N. chief said he has a "deep interest" in the issue and feels "much regret" about North Korea's alleged detentions of Shin Suk-ja and her two daughters.
"I will continue to take an interest in the issue and keep pushing" for a solution, Ban said in his native Korean. He was answering a question by Rep. Ha Tae-kyung of the ruling Saenuri Party during a National Assembly-hosted forum in Seoul about whether he has any intention to play an active role in the international campaign to free the three women.
Shin's husband, Oh Kil-nam, 70, also attended the forum.
Ban noted that the U.N. has appointed a special envoy to handle North Korean human rights issues, but the communist country refuses to let him visit.
He also said he "actively took part" in getting the U.N.
Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to denounce the detentions and urge North Korea to release the women, in May.
That decision came five days after the North reported to the U.N. in an English-language letter that Shin had died of hepatitis.
Oh rejected that claim, saying she had been cured of the disease before traveling to the North. He added that he believes she is still alive.
Oh has led an international campaign to free his wife and daughters since he escaped from the reclusive nation on his own in 1986. He believes the North punished his family by sending them to a political prison camp.
The family defected to North Korea from West Germany in 1985 after Oh received an offer to teach in the communist country. Oh had been studying in West Germany at the time.
North Korea is accused of serious human rights abuses ranging from holding hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, committing torture and carrying out public executions. Pyongyang has flatly denied the accusations, calling them a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.
Also at the forum, the U.N. chief said he is trying to play a role in maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Asked for what kind of advice he would give to political leaders of the two Koreas, Ban said the South should take a leading role in bringing reconciliation.
"There could be many opinions about who should make the first move, but I think the Republic of Korea (South Korea) should move first, given its abilities," he said. "Only then can the South and the North coexist." (Yonhap News)