Inmates in North Korea's prison camps have suffered starvation, torture and other "unspeakable atrocities", UN human rights investigators said yesterday in their first report on violations in the reclusive state.
The paper, swiftly rejected by Pyongyang, uncovered a pattern of human rights abuses, the head of the independent inquiry told the U.N. Human Rights Council.
There have long been concerns about reports of attrocities including executions and torture, but they have largely been overshadowed by international alarm about North Korea's nuclear weapons.
Tuesday's report came after pressure by Japan, South Korea and Western powers to investigate and begin building a case for possible criminal prosecution.
Inquiry head Michael Kirby said the findings were based on testimony from North Korean exiles, including former political prison camps inmates, given at public hearings in Seoul and Tokyo last month.
"They are representative of large-scale patterns that may constitute systematic and gross human rights violations," Kirby added.
The former justice of Australia's top court told the council: "I have been a judge for a very long time and I'm pretty hardened to testimony. But the testimony that I saw in Seoul and in Tokyo brought tears to my eyes on several occasions, including testimony of Mr. And Mrs. Yokota."
Their daughter Megumi Yokota, 13, vanished on her way home from school in Japan in 1977. She was one of 13 Japanese that Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader Kim Jong-un admitted in 2002 to having kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies. Pyongyang has said eight of them are dead, including Megumi.
Some North Korean exiles testified that they had faced torture and imprisonment "for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas on DVDs", Kirby said.
A North Korean woman testified how she "witnessed a female prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket". Kirby cited testimony of torture, starvation, and punishing generations of families under the so-called practice of "guilt by association".
Kirby said the independent inquiry would seek to determine which North Korean institutions and officials were responsible.
North Korean diplomat Kim Yong Ho said the inquiry was a fake and defamatory "political plot" to force regime change in North Korea. It had been politicised by the European Union and Japan, "in alliance with the U.S. hostile policy", Kim said.
"We will continue to oppose any attempt of regime change and pressure under pretext of 'human rights protection'," he said.
North Korea's main ally China, joined by Belarus and Syria, were among countries defending it during the 90-minute debate.
"Politicised accusations and pressures are not helpful to improving human rights in any country. On the contrary they will only provoke confrontation and undermine the foundation and atmosphere for international human rights cooperation," said Chinese diplomat Chen Chuandong.