GENEVA — The U.N.'s top human rights official said Monday that as many as 200,000 people are being held in North Korean political prison camps rife with torture, rape and slave labor, and that some of the abuses may amount to crimes against humanity.
For that reason, said Navi Pillay, the world body's high commissioner for human rights, nations must mount an independent probe into North Korea's human rights record.
The U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly, which includes all 193 member nations, have condemned North Korea's human rights record, but Pillay said stronger action is needed, including such a probe – one authorized by the United Nations but performed by experts independent of the U.N. system.
The stinging criticism and call from the world body's top human rights official for "a full-fledged international inquiry into serious crimes" in North Korea comes a year after Kim Jong Un became the new leader of the nuclear-armed Asian country upon the death of his father.
"There were some initial hopes that the advent of a new leader might bring about some positive change in the human rights situation," Pillay said. "But a year after Kim Jong Un became the country's new supreme leader we see almost no sign of improvement."
Pillay's statement was based on extensive research submitted by a special investigator for the 47-nation Human Rights Council based in Geneva and meetings that she held there in December with two survivors of the prison camps, said Pillay's spokesman, Rupert Colville.
A U.N. report in September by special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman said some 150,000 to 200,000 people are estimated to be imprisoned in six North Korean camps for alleged political crimes. Pillay said she found "their personal stories were extremely harrowing" after meeting with the two survivors.
"They described a system that represents the very antithesis of international human rights norms. We know so little about these camps, and what we do know comes largely from the relatively few refugees who have managed to escape from the country," Pillay said. "The highly developed system of international human rights protection that has had at least some positive impact in almost every country in the world, seems to have completely bypassed" North Korea.
She said the camp system involves "rampant violations, including torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment, summary executions, rape, slave labor, and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity." Living conditions are reported to include scarce food, little to no medical care and inadequate clothing.
"One mother described to me how she had wrapped her baby in leaves when it was born, and later made her a blanket by sewing together old socks," Pillay said.
While the world's focus remains on North Korea's nuclear program and its rocket launches, Pillay said, those important issues "should not be allowed to overshadow the deplorable human rights situation ... which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world."
Pillay said North Korea also has used the death penalty to punish minor offenses and abducted South Korean and Japanese nationals over the years.
North Korea's mission to the United Nations in Geneva, which was given a copy of the report before its publication Monday, did not have an immediate public response to it.