UN rights panel challenges N. Korea over 'slander' claim

Michael Kirby, chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.

SEOUL - The head of a UN inquiry into human rights in North Korea challenged Pyongyang on Monday to back its allegation that testimony gathered by his commission in Seoul amounted to "slander"

The three-member Commission of Inquiry chaired by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby has just wrapped up hearing five days of often harrowing testimony in the South Korean capital - mostly from North Korean defectors.

North Korea on Friday condemned the hearings as an exercise in "slander" that could set back a recent thaw in cross border-relations with the South. The North, which strongly denies allegations of rights abuses, has refused to recognise the commission and barred its members from visiting the country - a stance that Kirby suggested blunted the credibility of its criticism.

"If any of the testimony on the conditions of political prisoners, abductees, torture, starvation conditions and inter-generational punishment and so forth can be shown to be untrue, we would welcome evidence to that effect," Kirby said in a statement.

"But so far, the evidence we have heard has largely pointed in one consistent and disturbing direction - and it is so far unanswered," he added.

The Commission of Inquiry is the first UN expert panel to officially examine North Korea's human rights record, and plans to collect witness testimony in Japan, Thailand, Britain and the United States.

The other members are Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert, and Marzuki Darusman, a senior Indonesian jurist who also serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.

Kirby said the panel had been "deeply moved" by testimony from the 40 witnesses who addressed the commission in Seoul.

"The specificity, detail and shocking character of much of the testimony, appears to call for a response from the international community," he said. "It is not good enough to produce just another UN report."

The final report, to be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year, will include the commission's recommendations for any possible action to be taken against North Korea.