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(Yonhap Interview) UN panel chief calls on N. Korea to open up about rights issues

By Park So-jung

SEOUL, Aug. 22 (Yonhap) -- The chairman of the United Nations-mandated inquiry into North Korea's human rights issues called on the communist country to cooperate with its investigation, following two days of hearings in Seoul that he said gave a clearer picture of what appeared to be the world's last remaining political prison camps.

Michael Kirby, a former Australian High Court judge who is leading the Commission of Inquiry (COI), said Wednesday that he was impressed by the level of "particularity and clarity" with which the witnesses described the camps, which the North denies exist.

"After today's evidence, if (North Korea) seriously expects the international community to disbelieve the existence of such institutions, then they have to really open up their border to allow an independent body to go and have a look at places," he asserted in his interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul.

Michael Kirby, chairman of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's alleged human rights violations, gives an opening remark at the inaugural session of the series of public hearings in Seoul on Aug. 20, 2013. (Yonhap)

The three-member commission is holding a series of public hearings in Seoul this week to collect evidence from dozens of defectors, NGO workers and North Korea experts. It is the first systematic review of its kind on the North's human rights situation, which has remained largely unaddressed despite its recent publicity.

On Tuesday's inaugural hearing, Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known survivor to have escaped a no-exit prison camp known as a "complete control district," described his experience there, where he said the inmates subsisted on uncooked rats and undigested grain found in cow manure.

On Wednesday, Kim Young-soon, 76, who was sent to another North Korean gulag for her knowledge of the private life of then leader Kim Jong-il, said that out of the seven members of her family who joined her in the camp, only she and her now-disabled son survived.

The commission has made several attempts to reach out to North Korean authorities, by sending letters to their government and their permanent mission in Geneva. Though none of them were met with positive responses, Kirby said the commission intended to continue to seek its cooperation.

"We have further duties to them of making sure that when we are reaching formulated ideas and conclusions, we give them a fair opportunity to respond before we place those conclusions before the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly," the 74-year-old retired judge said.

The biggest challenge for the COI, however, stands as it is: the lack of evidence from North Korea itself. Kirby confirmed that there were several measures to ensure the validity of the testimonies given by defectors, including the promise of each witness to tell the truth, the commissioners' own impressions about the testimony and other objective indicators, such as satellite images.

Michael Kirby (C), chairman of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights issues, questions Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have escaped a no-exit prison camp in North Korea. (Yonhap)

Kirby refused to discuss potential legal consequences for the North, saying, "It's a long way down the track."

   "First, we have to reach our conclusions. Second, we have to publish them. Third, it's then a matter for the international community," he said.

He did note that the only legal action that can be considered was to bring the matters to the International Criminal Court, of which North Korea holds no party membership. A special U.N. provision could allow the Security Council to refer the case to the international tribunal, he said, adding that whether there is sufficient reason or evidence to do so will have to be determined at the end of the investigation.

When asked about his personal reasons for joining the commission, Kirby fondly recalled his childhood when he first learned about the fundamental rights of human beings.

"When I was a little boy of 9 in Australia, I received what every boy in public schools did in Australia at that time: a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," he said. "I was taught about them in my class by my teacher, and it's been with me ever since."

   Others on the panel are Marzuki Darusman, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, and Sonja Biserko, founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

They are scheduled to visit Japan next week to investigate the allegations of the North's abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s.

sojungko@yna.co.kr

(END)

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