SEOUL - The Obama administration's newly appointed envoy for human rights in North Korea said on Monday Pyongyang had an abysmal record and that Washington would press the reclusive state to clean up its act.

Human rights have been a flash point in already tense ties between rivals North Korea and the United States, but the issue has often been overshadowed by Washington's attempts to prod Pyongyang back to sputtering nuclear disarmament talks.

It is one of the worst places in terms of the lack of human rights. The situation is appalling, U.S. special envoy Robert King told reporters in Seoul on his first trip overseas since taking up the post about six weeks ago.

North Korea has signaled it was ready to end its year-long boycott of disarmament-for-aid talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

A relationship with the United States and North Korea will have to involve human rights, King said.

The United States says North Korea maintains a network of political prisons where anyone thought to be associated with anything critical of Kim Jong-il's rule can be jailed along with their families, who are deemed guilty by association.

The North uses arbitrary killings and stages public executions to intimidate the masses. It prevents free speech, controls all media and is thought to have ended nascent attempts at reform by executing or imprisoning those who oppose the state, according to the State Department.

King will meet North Korean defectors and government officials in Seoul this week. His visit coincides with a trip to the South Korean capital by the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea.

King also said the United States had been trying to obtain information about Robert Park, a U.S. rights activist who was arrested for entering North Korea on Christmas Day.

Park said before crossing into the secretive, communist North it was his duty as a Christian to raise awareness of Pyonyang's abuses.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner and Paul Tait)