News / Asia

UN Investigators Seek China Access for North Korea Rights Probe

Retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, Chairman of the U.N.-mandated Commission of Inquiry, Oct 31, 2013.
Retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, Chairman of the U.N.-mandated Commission of Inquiry, Oct 31, 2013.
A U.N. investigator says he has asked China to grant access to his team as it conducts an inquiry into suspected human rights abuses in neighboring North Korea.

In an interview with VOA in Washington Thursday, retired Australian judge Michael Kirby said he hopes his U.N.-mandated Commission of Inquiry will be able to visit China within the next two months.

The team has to finish writing its report on North Korea's human rights record by the beginning of February, so that it can be edited and translated ahead of its presentation to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council in March.

Commission chairman Kirby said that if China grants access to the commission, it is unlikely that any evidence will be provided to the investigators in public. He was speaking at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, on the sidelines of a public hearing about alleged North Korean human rights abuses.

Examining food insecurity

The two-day hearing concluded Thursday, with testimony from American analysts who accused North Korea's authoritarian leadership of deliberately hindering efforts by foreign aid groups to deliver food to malnourished and starving North Koreans.

Kirby asked the analysts who they think should be held accountable in North Korea for its famine of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people died.

The analysts said North Korea's system of government was highly centralized, with then-North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Il making decisions that obstructed foreign aid and undermined domestic food production.

North Korea has denied any rights abuses and refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, calling it a hostile political act.

Defectors' disturbing stories

Kirby heard testimony from North Korean defectors living in the United States on Wednesday. He described his reaction to the tearful account of 26-year-old Jin Hye Jo, who moved to the United States in 2008.

"We had a sad and indeed gruesome story of the suffering of a young woman - really just a girl at the time - of most of her suffering as she lost, in succession, her brother, her grandmother, her father and another sibling, and saw all around her, people starving to death and otherwise dying," he said. "So this is not an inquiry for the faint-hearted."

The U.N. investigators already have interviewed more than 200 victims, witnesses and analysts in a series of hearings in South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Britain this year.

Kirby said the often-harrowing testimony has affected him deeply.

"I was a judge in my own country, Australia, for 34 years, and I've seen a lot of disturbing testimony over my time. But even for me, I found the tears are often not far. And that's unusual, because you get a certain coldness of heart over years of performing the judicial function. Here, I'm not a judge and I'm not a prosecutor, but I'm conducting an inquiry into really tragic circumstances of very great suffering and great deprivation of human rights, and it can sometimes be very upsetting."

Keeping investigation credible

He said there are several ways to determine whether the people testifying are being honest.

"Their testimony is consistent, one with the other. They don't know each other, and their testimony is also available to be measured against objective material that is available to the Commission of Inquiry. And essentially, people can judge from the appearance of the witnesses as to whether they are telling the truth. And their testimony is now online and available. And I think it is on the whole extremely convincing."

Kirby said the commission has tried to be fair to North Korea by asking those testifying to respond to North Korean statements made to the United Nations about human rights.

He also predicted that North Korea will not be able to avoid scrutiny for long, saying that ultimately, "answers will be demanded" by the international community on the basis of his team's report and recommendations.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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