WASHINGTON (AP) - U.N. investigators probing possible crimes against humanity in North Korea are holding two days of public hearings in Washington, the latest stop in their globe-trotting effort to gather evidence about a secretive country that won't let them in.
Hearings held this summer in Seoul yielded harrowing accounts from defectors. They told of systematic rape, murder, beatings and torture inside the North's vast gulag, which South Korea estimates holds 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners. In Tokyo, the U.N. commission of inquiry heard testimony about the North's abductions of Japanese nationals. In London last week, former North Korean prisoners and military officers recounted forced labor and witnessing public executions.
The three-member U.N. panel, led by Australian judge Michael Kirby, is empowered to ensure "full accountability" for any crimes against humanity. Recommendations from the commission due in March will be passed on to the United Nations for review - and that could crank up political pressure on North Korea and possibly trigger consequences.
It is possible, for example, the outcome could lead to a resolution being put to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly. But bringing perpetrators to justice remains a distant prospect. There's little sign North Korea's hereditary regime is about to crumble or subject itself to international justice. Any referral to the International Criminal Court would require the approval of the U.N. Security Council. Permanent council member China, North Korea's main benefactor, would be unlikely to consent.
Kirby told the General Assembly on Tuesday that all the evidence gathered so far points to "large-scale patterns of systematic and gross human rights violations." He said 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.
The commission's work has focused more international attention on the grim conditions there. Diplomacy has long been channeled more toward persuading or punishing North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
"Although nothing can be done to the government in North Korea right now, this is a way to pressure them against not committing more rights abuses," said Hyun In Ae, who taught at universities in North Korea for years before defecting in 2004. "They need to know it's an internationally recognized crime."
Hyun, who is currently resident fellow at the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said she expected the government to be carefully watching news of the Washington event, and will consider it a strategic attempt by the U.S. to condemn North Korea, which denies rights abuses and even the existence of the prison camps. It has responded neither to an invitation to talk to the commission nor to a request for the panel to visit the North.
In Washington, the commission is expected to hear Wednesday from some of the 150 North Korean defectors living in the U.S., and then Thursday from nongovernment experts on North Korea, including those who use satellite imagery to help research the North's network of prison camps, which remain closed to outside scrutiny, even by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Recent research suggests that detainee numbers in the sprawling political camps have declined from an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 during the 1990s. A South Korean government institute that conducts in-depth surveys and interviews of North Korean defectors estimates that 80,000 to 120,000 people are now held in the camps.
Camps originally swelled under a system instituted by North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in the late 1950s, by which three generations of a family could be detained because of the perceived disloyalty or political orientation of one of its members - a practice that may be less prevalent today than in the past.
"The intent was to exterminate the family lineage of those deemed to be the enemies of 'the people' in North Korea. And to a considerable extent, the regime succeeded," independent expert David Hawk wrote in August in his latest research into the camp system. He is due to testify to the panel Thursday.
Kirby said 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. He said the commission would seek to establish to what extent the prisoners were transferred, were released or died.
Associated Press writer Peter Spielmann at the United Nations contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)