The United States said on Friday it was "very concerned" about human rights violations in North Korea, as President Barack Obama named an envoy to focus on the issue.
"We're deeply concerned about the situation in North Korea, particularly the plight of North Korean refugees, and human rights in general," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
His comments came as Obama nominated Robert King to serve as his first special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, replacing Jay Lefkowitz, who left his post in January after serving under former president George W Bush.
If confirmed by the Senate, King will work as part of US special representative for North Korea Stephen Bosworth's team and cooperate with other top State Department officials involved in Washington's policy toward Pyongyang, according to Kelly.
He will also serve as the liaison with human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations "to try and highlight the problem of North Korean human rights and trying to promote a more transparent political system in North Korea," said Kelly.
Scores of North Koreans are believed to flee the hardline communist state each year as they desperately seek a way out of extreme poverty and malnutrition.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg meanwhile was headed for Hanoi to launch a regional trip set to be dominated by talks about North Korea's nuclear program that will also include stops in Malaysia, China, South Korea and Japan.
Steinberg visited the region in June, just weeks after the reclusive Stalinist state conducted a nuclear test on May 25 and after it bolted from six-country nuclear talks with South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. Pyongyang has since offered to resume talks, a move welcomed by Washington.
But Kelly shied from giving a date for the start of bilateral talks between the two countries, a US offer to entice North Korea back to formal six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear program. "No decision has been made to have these bilateral talks," he stressed.
If such a meeting could prod North Korea to return to "some kind of meaningful talks," Kelly added, "We're willing to consider this. We're still considering it. And we simply have nothing to announce at this time."