President Bush named a U.S. special envoy on human rights for North Korea on Friday, an appointment that comes amid a recess in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions and could ruffle Pyongyang.
But U.S. officials said the appointment, announced by the White House, had been in the works for some time and was not aimed at putting pressure on the North Koreans ahead of the resumption of the nuclear talks.
"It's taken this long to line everything up. I think people will read a little more into the timing than they should," said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The job was created last October under a U.S. law to promote human rights in communist-ruled North Korea, and human rights groups had pressed for the post to be filled.
The envoy, Jay P. Lefkowitz, has previously been White House deputy assistant for domestic policy and has also been a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino issued a statement on the appointment in Crawford, Tex., where Bush is on a month-long vacation.
Suzanne Scholte, a leader of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, said her umbrella group of religious and rights activists had been eagerly waiting for the appointment
"This man I understand is close to President Bush, so that means he'll have his ear on North Korean human rights, so we're very excited about the appointment," she said.
"It's so critical that we let the North Korean people know that we know that they're suffering," said Scholte, whose coalition will stage protests and prayer meetings in Washington over the weekend to support human rights in North Korea.
The North Korea talks in Beijing broke off this month after 13 days without an agreement, but the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia are scheduled to resume negotiations aimed at hammering out the principles of a deal the week of Aug. 29.
North Korea, widely condemned for its human rights record, has long accused Washington of using rights as a pretext to overthrow the government of leader Kim Jong Il. Pyongyang has cited comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referring to North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny" as a reason that it boycotted the six-party talks for more than a year.
Experts estimate that about 1 million of the country's 22.5 million people died in a famine in the 1990s, and refugees describe a gulag system holding 200,000 political prisoners.
Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator in the six-party talks, said this week that he had raised the issue of human rights during the recent session in Beijing. He described rights scrutiny as the "cost of admission" to international society.
The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was passed unanimously by both chambers of Congress. The law calls for directing humanitarian aid to North Korean refugees who have fled into neighboring states, and earmarks funds for broadcasts to the North.