A United Nations commission on Wednesday launched the final leg of an inquiry into possible North Korean crimes against humanity, hearing testimony from a defector who detailed brutal torture at the hands of authorities in the impoverished country.
Jo Jin Hye, one of around 150 North Korean defectors currently living in the U.S., testified that economic mismanagement by the North Korean regime had led to food shortages that destroyed her family.
Jo, 26, said that in the years before she defected to the U.S., her father was killed in a prison camp and her elder sister was trafficked to China—both after attempting to secure food for their family—and her two younger brothers died of starvation.
The two-day hearing in Washington will wrap up an inquiry that has seen the three-member commission gather evidence of rights violations from witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo and London since July 1, following a resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The commission is chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, Serbian rights campaigner Sonja Biserko and Indonesian Marzuki Darusman, who is also Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea.
The commission’s eight-point mandate “deals with a whole range of human rights issues and alleged violations of human rights in North Korea,” where an extensive network of labor camps is believed by South Korea to hold as many as 120,000 political prisoners, Kirby said Wednesday.
The commission has also been conducting confidential consultations with non-witnesses and has been receiving written submissions which, in addition to evidence gathered from hearings, he said, will form the basis for determining whether rights violations in North Korea amount to crimes against humanity.
It will present a report of its findings, along with recommendations, to the Human Rights Council in March 2014.
It is unclear what actions the U.N. could take against North Korea for rights abuses. Any referral to the International Criminal Court, for example, will require approval from the country’s key ally and permanent U.N. Security Council member China.
Kirby indicated earlier this week that evidence gathered so far points to “large-scale patterns of systematic and gross human rights violations.”
Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, he said that when the commission delivers its final report, “the international community will be obliged to face its responsibilities and decide what concrete action it will take" to protect the North Korean people.”
Pyongyang has responded neither to an invitation to talk to the commission nor a request for the panel to visit the North.
Kirby praised the witnesses who provided testimony to the commission at the risk of their safety and the well-being of their family members, many of whom remain in North Korea.
“If [witnesses] give testimony, members of the family still living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—North Korea—may suffer harm.”
Defector Jo, in her testimony, said that her father was thrown in a prison camp when he was caught returning to North Korea from China—where he had illegally traveled to purchase food from relatives to feed his family—and died from beatings, exhaustion, and starvation during his transfer to another facility.
Her elder sister went missing in 1998 after she attempted to make the journey to China for food, and was later found to have been sold into sexual slavery across the border. Her whereabouts remains unknown.
Later that year, Jo’s baby brother died because her mother was too malnourished to breastfeed him.
“We had to take him to the town so that he could get some milk from other people who were lactating and feeding their babies, but because my dad died in jail … people were very mean to us. They hit us with broomsticks and threw things at us, saying that we weren’t good people,” she said.
“Then after that, my baby brother died in my arms because he wasn’t able to eat.”
When the remaining members of the family fled across the border to China, they were forced to leave Jo’s other younger brother behind with another household, only to find later that he had ended up on the street and eventually succumbed to starvation.
Jo was forcibly repatriated from China to North Korea four times while trying to defect to a third country, and suffered brutal beatings in detention at the hands of authorities back home.
“They made me kneel down and in between my thigh and calf they placed lumber and kicked me in my shoulders until I was in pain,” she said.
“Sometimes they made me sit in front of the wall and grabbed my hair, repeatedly slamming my head against the wall.”
Jo, her mother and her younger sister—who were also subjected to beatings after being caught trying to defect—were eventually granted exit visas by China in 2008 with the help of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Jo’s testimony echoed earlier accounts from hearings held in Seoul this summer, during which defectors detailed systematic rape, beatings, and torture inside of North Korea’s prison camps.
In Tokyo, the commission heard testimony about abductions of Japanese nationals by the North, while in London last week, former North Korean prisoners and military officers described forced labor and public executions.
On Thursday, the commission is expected to hear from nongovernment experts on North Korea, including those who have used satellite imagery to document the country’s extensive network of prison camps.
Research has suggested that the number of prisoners held in the camps—in which three generations of a family could be detained because of one member’s political crime—has decreased since the 1990s, when as many as 200,000 people were believed held.
The Associated Press cited Kirby as saying that satellite images show at least four political prison camps remain fully operational, but in recent years, a fifth camp has been downsized and another closed.
The U.N. Human Rights Council has been investigating North Korea since 2004, but had run into opposition against the establishment of a commission from Pyongyang’s allies China and Russia, as well as from South Korea and Japan, who feared that such a move would lead the rogue nation to act out in retaliation.
This year, the council was able to approve the resolution, presented by Japan and the European Union, without North Korean sympathizers such as China and Cuba serving as members. Wording which condemned the abduction of foreign nationals by North Korea helped to bring Japan on board.