The head of a U.N. investigation into human rights abuses in North Korea on Tuesday cited “unspeakable atrocities” in the secretive state, saying the international community must take action against leader Kim Jong Un’s regime and hold it accountable for “gross” violations and “potential crimes against humanity.”
Michael Kirby, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, told the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council that testimonies heard so far by his panel indicated that authorities in the North are responsible for violations in every area it had been tasked with investigating.
“What we have seen and heard so far—the specificity, detail, and shocking character of the personal testimony—appears without doubt to demand follow-up action by the world community, and accountability on the part of [North Korea],” Kirby said in an oral update to the council.
The commission was approved by consensus in March at the 47-member Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva and given a one-year mandate to investigate alleged widespread and systematic violations in North Korea, where an extensive network of labor camps is believed to hold some 200,000 people.
The panel had invited officials from Pyongyang to take part in public hearings in Seoul, but received no reply. The regime has also refused investigators entry into North Korea to carry out their work.
Instead, the inquiry has relied on testimony in recently-concluded public hearings from defectors and family members of kidnapping victims in Seoul and Tokyo who Kirby said related stories of abductions, torture, and a policy of inter-generational punishment to detention in prison camps marked by starvation and “unspeakable atrocities.”
“We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief,” said Kirby, a former Australian judge.
“Women and men who exercised their human right to leave the [North] and were forcibly repatriated spoke about their experiences of torture, sexual violence, inhumane treatment, and arbitrary detention,” he said.
“Family members of persons abducted from the Republic of Korea [South Korea] and Japan described the agony they endured ever since the enforced disappearance of their loved ones at the hands of agents of [North Korea]…”
Numerous reports cited Kirby as saying that the commission had heard from a young man imprisoned from birth, who said he lived on rodents, lizards, and grass and saw his mother and brother executed.
It also heard from a young woman who said she saw another female prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket, Kirby said, and a man who said he was forced to help collect and burn the corpses of prisoners who died of starvation.
North Korea’s mission to the U.N. Human Rights Council in a statement Tuesday called the commission’s interim findings “fabricated by hostile forces aimed at sabotaging the socialist system of the [North] and defaming it.”
It also accused the commission of being motivated by the European Union, Japan, and the U.S. as “an attempt at regime change,” which it vowed to resist, adding that under the leadership of Kim Jong Un the North would “continue to promote and protect the human rights of its people.”
Earlier reports by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency had attacked testimony heard by the commission as “slander” against it, put forth by “human scum.”
Kirby invited North Korea to “produce evidence” that could prove any of the testimony the commission had heard as untrue.
“An ounce of evidence is worth far more than many pounds of insults and baseless attacks,” he said Tuesday.
“So far, however, the evidence we have heard has largely pointed in one direction—and evidence to the contrary is lacking.”
Kirby, Serbian rights campaigner Sonja Biserko, and Indonesian Marzuki Darusman, who is also the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, make up the three members of the commission.
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.
Before presenting its final report to the Human Rights Council in March, the commission will continue its investigation, give an oral briefing to the U.N. General Assembly in New York in October, and meet with additional experts, victims, and officials with knowledge of the human rights situation in North Korea.
“As the Human Rights Council requested us to do, we will focus our inquiry on ensuring accountability, including with regard to potential crimes against humanity,” Kirby told the council.
“We will seek to determine which state institutions and officials carry responsibility for gross human rights violations proved to have been committed.”