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ICC Note: Human rights abuses in North Korea are well-known, but up to now most information coming out of the closed country was gleaned from the personal stories of defectors.  It is hoped that the establishment of the UN Office specifically to investigate human rights abuses in North Korea will further substantiate the claims made by defectors.

By Alastair Gale

09/23/2015 North Korea (Wall Street Journal)

The United Nations has opened an office here aimed at prodding North Korea to close a network of prison camps it says are holding thousands of political prisoners and to build a fuller picture of human rights abuses within the hermetic country.

The six-person office is the latest step in a process by the U.N. to gather information about alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea. Early last year, a U.N. commission of inquiry issued a 400-page report that alleged widespread and systematic human rights abuses in North Korea.

“We’re looking to bring more depth to the report. Seoul is the best place to be for that,” Signe Poulsen, representative for the office, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. Ms. Poulsen arrived in South Korea in August and will coordinate information gathering from North Korean refugees, activist groups, academics and other North Korea-related parties.

At the center of the allegations are four city-sized political prison camps in North Korea visible using satellite imagery. Testimony from escapees, guards and other officials has built a picture of torture, starvation and execution at the camps, which human rights groups estimate hold 80,000-120,000 people considered hostile to the regime. The North Korean government denies the existence of the camps.

Those that manage to escape the camps and many others that flee from North Korea often try to find refuge in South Korea. Around 30,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea, many in Seoul.

North Korea has pushed back strongly against the U.N. investigation, sending its diplomats to dispute allegations of human rights abuses at hearings. At a U.N. Human Rights Council panel discussion held in Geneva on Sept. 21, North Korea’s delegation said such claims were a “conspiracy of the hostile forces, led by the U.S.,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

Ms. Poulsen says the U.N. General Assembly is likely to take up North Korean human rights again in October. Last December, the General Assembly called on the U.N. Security Council to consider referring the Pyongyang leadership to the International Criminal Court. The Security Council hasn’t put a resolution on the subject to a vote, reflecting opposition from China, an ally of North Korea and a veto holder on the council.

Ms. Poulsen said that despite limited prospect of progress at the Security Council, her office would help keep the issue of North Korean human rights on the U.N. agenda. She pointed to North Korea’s ratification of a number of U.N. conventions on rights for women, children and the disabled as offering some hope that it will eventually address the subject more constructively.

“North Korea’s strong response shows that it is taking this issue very seriously,” said Ms. Poulsen, who was most recently a U.N. human rights adviser in Papua New Guinea.

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