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Human Rights Groups Keep North Korea on the Defensive

North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Jang II Hun, left, is seated between North Korea's mission consulars Kin Song, center, and Kwon Jong Gun, right, as he speaks during a press conference, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015.

A nonprofit organization’s conference on North Korea’s human rights record is drawing sharp criticism from Pyongyang, which is threatening to strongly respond to what it calls provocations by hostile forces. Tuesday’s conference in Washington is part of a broader plan by human rights organizations to increase pressure on Pyongyang to dismantle its repressive system of political prisons.

While efforts have stalled in the United Nations to prosecute North Korea’s leaders for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court, the issue is not fading away.

Phil Robertson with the independent organization Human Rights Watch said his group is planning a number of ways to publicly shame Pyongyang over its human rights violations even if North Korea’s allies on the U.N. Security Council block any punitive action.

“Of course that may be the case, because of course China and Russia are still there, they still have veto authority, then we may have to search for an ad hoc international accountability mechanism,” said Robertson.

International pressure has been intensifying on Pyongyang since the release of a U.N. report last year documenting a network of political prisons in North Korea and atrocities that include murder, enslavement, and torture.

While the U.N. Security Council has not voted to prosecute North Korea, it did vote last December to put the issue on its agenda. Human rights advocates say this procedural vote was a major victory because once the issue is on Security Council’s agenda it can be brought up again at any time.

This week the Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies is holding a public conference on human rights in the North Korea.

Jang Il Hun, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations on Monday objected to the continued international focus on the human rights situation in his country. He denied any allegations of abuse, and insisted that Pyongyang's offer to attend the conference was rejected by Washington, even though the event is open to the public.

“We will strongly respond to the end, to any of the slightest provocation by the hostile forces, such as the one in the conference convened by the United States. We will continue to develop and strengthen our people and other socialist system that formerly guarantees the protection and promotion of human rights of our people," said Jang.

But human rights organizations and the United Nations are not backing down. In March, the U.N. Human Rights Council will meet in Geneva and hold a session on North Korea. Also this year the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner For Human Rights will open an office based in Seoul to focus on the human rights situation in nuclear-armed communist North Korea.

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