U.N. sees signs of North Korea softening in human rights dialogue

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his visit to the completed Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on October 26, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA (Reuters)

By Louis Charbonneau UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - North Korea is showing signs of a willingness to discuss the human rights situation in the country, possibly as a result of pressure created by a U.N. inquiry that accused Pyongyang of crimes against humanity, a U.N. investigator said on Tuesday. Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea, told the U.N. General Assembly's Third Committee, which focuses on human rights, the inquiry found that widespread human rights abuses by the North Korean government "met the high threshold required for crimes against humanity in international law." The 372-page U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, published in February, detailed wide-ranging abuses in North Korea, including the use of prison camps, torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities. The report's publication prompted calls for punitive action against Pyongyang. North Korea has dismissed the inquiry as part of a U.S. political plot aimed at destroying the North Korean system. But Darusman said it may be playing a role in encouraging changes in the North Korean government's interaction with the world. "Perhaps prompted by the intensive focus that has been brought to bear by the commission of inquiry, (North Korea) has shown the beginnings of a disposition towards re-engagement with the international community on human rights," he said. He cited two examples. Earlier this year Pyongyang participated in the U.N. Human Rights Council's "universal period review" (UPR) of North Korea and accepted nearly half of the 268 recommendations for changes that came up in the review. Darusman added that North Korea and Japan have begun bilateral investigations into cases of abducted Japanese nationals. "I am further pleased to report that yesterday I had my first-ever meeting as special rapporteur with official representatives of (North) Korea here in New York," he said. Previously, North Koreans had refused to meet Darusman. Darusman described that meeting as an "encouraging development" that could open the door to collaboration with North Korea on improving human rights in the country. "I firmly believe that the international community should seize this unique opportunity and momentum created by both the commission of inquiry and (North Korean) engagement with UPR to help to make a difference in the lives of the people of (North Korea), including victims, and to ensure accountability of those responsible for serious violations of human rights," he said. Earlier this month, the European Union and Japan circulated a draft resolution that would urge the U.N. General Assembly to recommend the referral of North Korea to The Hague for crimes against humanity. This prompted Pyongyang to take the unusual step of proposing its own text praising its human rights record. The Third Committee is expected to vote on the EU-Japanese draft resolution in the near future. The measure would then go to the General Assembly for a vote. If the Security Council ever attempted to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, China would likely exercise its veto power, council diplomats say. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)