SEOUL, South Korea -- The first United Nations panel of experts assigned to investigate North Korean human rights abuses urged the government in Pyongyang on Tuesday to allow them to visit, even as the North called their work slanderous.
The panel, a three-member Commission of Inquiry, was finishing five days of public hearings here in the South Korean capital, during which defectors from North Korea, many of them survivors of its labor or political prisoner camps, have provided harrowing accounts of hunger, torture, forced abortions and public executions.
Some women who testified told the commissioners how human traffickers lured them with promises of jobs and food and sold them in China, where they said they were forced into prostitution or a slavelike life in rural families. Relatives of South Koreans who were taken to the North during the 1950-53 Korean War or whose fishing boats were seized by North Korean gunboats in postwar years also appealed for international attention to the fate of their missing fathers and siblings.
Michael Donald Kirby, head of the commission, said, "We are the eyes and ears of the international community." Speaking during a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday, he appealed for access to North Korea. He said his panel would "have no preconceptions and act with complete independence" in its investigation.
"The best way for North Korea to respond is with evidence," he said, urging visits to the North's prison camps and other sites where human rights violations have been reported. "An ounce of evidence is worth many, many pounds of insult or attack."
North Korea denies keeping political prisoners or violating human rights. In the past week, it has called the commission's work "an interference with internal affairs" and "slander and provocation." It also called North Korean witnesses before the commission "human scum" who were manipulated by the South Korean authorities. It warned that "the human rights racket" could easily derail a recent movement between the two Koreas toward a thaw in their relations after months of bellicose rhetoric.
South Korea supports the United Nations inquiry, but its politicians are deeply divided over how aggressively the South should press the North over human rights. The South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, did not meet the United Nations commissioners. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, by contrast, plans to meet them when they travel to Tokyo this week for public hearings involving family members of the Japanese who are thought to have been kidnapped and taken to North Korea decades ago.
The panel is scheduled to finish its investigation by the end of the year, and to submit its report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, with recommendations.
Many North Korean defectors hope that the United Nations Security Council will ask the International Criminal Court to indict North Korean leaders for crimes against humanity. Rights activists have also called for the United Nations to begin a monitoring program in China to help protect the rights of North Korean refugees there.
The number of inmates in North Korean political prisoner camps, once estimated at 150,000 to 200,000, is believed to have decreased to 80,000 to 120,000 in five camps, according to the 2013 white paper on North Korean human rights prepared by the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
It said the North had recently dismantled one camp, releasing many inmates and relocating the others to a new, smaller camp. North Korea also closed another camp near the border with China, the South Korean paper said, relocating its inmates to other facilities.
The closing of the second camp followed a sharp decline in the prison population there caused by acute food shortages and large numbers of deaths, said a report released Tuesday by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a nongovernmental organization based in the United States. It cited North Korean defectors or recent South Korean news reports quoting what they identified as anonymous sources inside North Korea.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.