Japan brings North Korean kidnappings to UN mission

TOKYO (AFP) - A United Nations team probing North Korea's human rights record was in Japan on Wednesday, as Tokyo campaigns to publicise the kidnapping of its nationals by Pyongyang agents.

The three-member Commission of Inquiry chaired by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby spent five days in Seoul collecting harrowing testimony of rights abuses in the North from defectors.

The commission - the first UN expert panel to officially examine North Korea's rights record - will spend Thursday and Friday in Tokyo hearing more testimony, particularly about Japanese nationals abducted by the North during the Cold War.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met Mr Kirby on Wednesday morning and stressed to him that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was determined to resolve the emotive kidnapping issue.

Mr Kishida also voiced concerns about "serious" and "organised" human rights violations in the North and said Japan would not normalise diplomatic relations with Pyongyang unless the abduction problem was settled, a foreign ministry statement said.

Pyongyang admitted in 2002 its agents had snatched young Japanese in what Tokyo said was an operation to train spies in Japanese language and customs.

Following a summit between then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong Il, the late North Korean leader, five of those who were taken were allowed to return to Japan, along with their Korea-born offspring.

But suspicions persist in Japan that the isolated state has not come clean about the scope of its abductions and the issue colours all of Tokyo's dealings on North Korea.

The North has been scathing about the UN panel, calling its witnesses in South Korea "human scum" manipulated by local authorities.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the commission's work would only set back recent progress towards engagement between North and South Korea after months of heightened military tensions.

The North, which strongly denies allegations of rights abuses, has refused to recognise the commission and barred it visiting.

Mr Kirby has repeatedly appealed to North Korea to grant his team access.

The Commission of Inquiry also plans to collect witness testimony in Thailand, Britain and the United States.

The final report is due to be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year, and Mr Kirby said he expected the UN to act on any recommendations it might make.

Their visit to Tokyo coincided with a stopover by Robert King, the US special envoy for North Korean human rights, who was on his way to Pyongyang to seek the release of an ailing Korean-American sentenced to 15 years' hard labour.

Mr King was scheduled to meet a Japanese minister in charge of the abduction issue later in the day.