U.N. rights chief seeks international investigation of North Korea
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay called on Monday for an international investigation into what she said were decades of serious violations in North Korea, including torture and executions of political prisoners held in shadowy camps.
She voiced regret that there had been no improvement since Kim Jong-un took power a year ago and said it was time for the international community to help bring about change for North Korea's "beleaguered, subjugated population".
"Because of the enduring gravity of the situation, I believe an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst - but least understood and reported - human rights situations in the world is not only fully justified, but long overdue," Pillay said in a rare statement on North Korea.
Japan is weighing whether to submit a resolution on North Korea to the U.N. Human Rights Council, whose next four-week session begins on February 25, diplomats said.
North Korea has ignored a series of council special investigators for years, denying them entry. But the 47-nation rights council has the power to launch wider independent international inquiries that can build a criminal case.
Pillay regretted that international concerns over North Korea's nuclear programme and rocket launches were overshadowing "the deplorable human rights situation in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world."
Former New Mexico state governor Bill Richardson and Google GOOG.O Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt failed to secure the release of a Korean-American held in North Korea during a trip to the secretive East Asian state last week.
The timing of their trip was criticized by the U.S. State Department, coming after Pyongyang carried out a long-range rocket launch last month, something Washington considers a provocative test of ballistic missile technology.
North Korea has long argued that, hemmed in by a hostile United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, it has no choice but to build up a powerful defense. Pyongyang is under U.N. sanctions for conducting nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The reclusive country's network of political prison camps are believed to contain 200,000 people or more and have been the scene of rampant violations including rapes, torture, executions and slave labor, according to Pillay, a former judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Living conditions in the camps are reported to be "atrocious" with insufficient food, little or no medical care and inadequate clothing for inmates, she said.
"The death penalty seems to be often applied for minor offences and after wholly inadequate judicial processes, or sometimes without any judicial process at all," Pillay said. "People who try to escape and are either caught or sent back face terrible reprisals including execution, torture and incarceration, often with their entire extended family."
Activist groups including Human Rights Watch say that China routinely repatriates North Korean defectors who make it out of the country.
Pillay said that she had met two survivors of North Korea's labor camps in Geneva in December and their personal testimonies had been "extremely harrowing".
One of them, a man, had been born in a camp and spent 23 years there, subjected to torture and forced labor. At 14 he was made to watch his mother and brother being executed.
"One mother described to me how she had wrapped her baby in leaves when it was born and later made her a blanket by sewing together old socks," she said.
Pillay noted that she had previously met with families of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents over many years and whose fate remains unknown.
"There is an urgent need to clarify the fate of the many South Koreans and Japanese, abducted by DPRK over the years, as well as the countless civilians in the South rounded up and taken to the North during the Korean War, and to seek truth, justice and redress for their long-suffering families."
Kim Jon-un, the third generation of a ruling dynasty, is the youthful new dictator of the destitute country and he has overturned the austere image of his father, cheerfully riding a rollercoaster in an outdoor theme park.
"There were some initial hopes that the advent of a new leader might bring about some positive change in the human rights situation in DPRK," Pillay said. "But a year after Kim Jong-un became the country's new supreme leader, we see almost no sign of improvement."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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