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UN panel to investigate North Korea gulags for crimes against humanity

The United Nations has appointed a team of investigators to seek evidence of possible torture, executions and forced labor in North Korea.

North Korea human rights 08 05 2013Enlarge
A satellite image of one of North Korea's gulags, whose existence the government denies. A UN team investing possible abuses in North Korea aims to uncover the true extent of the country's prison camps. (Screengrab)

The UN has named the team of experts who will lead the body's first ever investigation into possible crimes against humanity in North Korea.

Australian former judge Michael Kirby will chair the panel, assisted by Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, and Sonja Biserko, the Serbian president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and an expert on war crimes.

Their task is to investigate what the UN's Human Rights Council calls "the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights" in North Korea. They will be looking for evidence of prison camps, torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, among other abuses.

Hours after his appointment Tuesday, Kirby said he was already inundated with messages from people wishing to testify. 

"So there won't be a difficulty having people who want to make submissions to the commission, and when it's set up in July that's exactly what we'll be doing," he told Australian broadcaster ABC.

More from GlobalPost: North Korea's secret gulags

In its 19 years of existence, the UN human rights body has not carried out an investigation into the North Korean system of kwanliso, or prison camps, where some 200,000 people toil in hard labor. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she pushed for the investigation after interviewing former prisoners last year.

North Korea denies the existence of the camps. Recent satellite imagery, however, suggests that some five or six gulags exist – and that they are being expanded. 

To no one's surprise, Pyongyang says it will not cooperate with the investigation and is unlikely to allow the panel access to the country.

As a result the inquiry is expected to rely heavily on the accounts of defectors, though Kirby said he would also seek input from the North Korean authorities.

"Certainly the commission will pay its respects to the government of North Korea and will be seeking to make contact with them and certainly to give them opportunities to respond to the testimony that we receive," he said, promising that Pyongyang would be given due process.

The commission is due to present its preliminary findings in September.

Geoffrey Cain contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.

More from GlobalPost: UN to investigate North Korea after years of labor camp torture

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/north-korea/130508/un-investigation-north-korea-human-rights