UN rights team will visit Asia for North Korea inquiry

GENEVA (REUTERS) - United Nations (UN) human rights investigators will go to South Korea and Japan next month to interview North Korean exiles about alleged crimes against humanity in the secretive state.

Mr Michael Kirby, a former judge of Australia's top court and chairman of the panel, said the team would hold public hearings and interview witnesses on alleged rights violations, including kidnappings of foreign nationals, torture and a gulag system.

Pyongyang, which denies the charges and the existence of labour camps alleged to hold at least 200,000 people, has said it will not cooperate with the commission of inquiry, set up by the UN Human Rights Council in March.

But Mr Kirby said he hoped for an opening to "hear their point of view".

"That ought to be our first port of call. That would have top priority, so we would be suggesting that sometime in the middle of August.

We would be suggesting going to South Korea, immediately following that in mid-to late-August, and to Japan after that," Mr Kirby said in an interview.

A written reply received from North Korea's diplomatic mission in Geneva was not encouraging, he said.

"The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) is concerned about whether the Commission of Inquiry will be impartial or hostile. Well, I have to say to them, through you people, that it will not be hostile. It will be independent and it will be resolute in the discharge of its mandate," he said.

The one-year inquiry, set up by the UN Human Rights Council last March, is due to make an initial oral report to the 47-member state Geneva forum on Sept 16.

Any recommendations on future action will not be binding and are unlikely to be heeded by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the third generation of a dynasty that has ruled the authoritarian state throughout it history.

The three commissioners, which include former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman and Ms Sonja Biserko of Serbia are being assisted by eight veteran UN investigators.

Meeting for the first time in Geneva this week, they held private talks with senior diplomats from North Korea's main ally China as well as Russia and the European Union, and activists.

"The mandate is extremely large. The time is extremely short. The budget is extremely small," Mr Kirby said.

A UN commission of inquiry into war crimes being committed in Syria's civil war has used Skype to interview people in the country, and tapped into YouTube and other sites for testimony that it tries to corroborate.

"There are new methods of inquiry and reaching out in an efficient and imaginative way," Mr Kirby said, referring to the use of social networks.

"The world doesn't need another big, fat report gathering dust in the basement. Nor does it need a new contribution to the Cold War.

We are not on that."