GENEVA (Reuters) - North Korean defectors and prison camp survivors will start testifying at U.N. hearings in Asia next week about alleged rights abuses, including torture and executions, for which they hope their country's leaders may one day face trial.
Three independent investigators, backed by 10 U.N. staff, have convened the hearings in Seoul and Tokyo to document alleged abuses, also including food deprivation and arbitrary detentions, in the country of 23 million people.
North Korea is under sweeping United Nations sanctions over its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, but this will mark the first time its human rights record has been examined by international experts with a mandate to establish accountability for possible crimes against humanity.
Activists and alleged victims hope that the evidence gathered by the commission of inquiry, led by former Australian judge Michael Kirby, will begin building a criminal case for prosecuting its leaders.
North Korean officials have denied repeatedly that there are serious human rights violations in their isolated country, a Communist dynasty ruled by Kim Jong-un.
"Given that we will have five days or so in Seoul we expect about 40 people to testify," Giuseppe Calandruccio, coordinator of the U.N. human rights office secretariat supporting the inquiry, told Reuters before departing for South Korea.
Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch welcomed the unprecedented hearings, which she expects to produce "dramatic stories".
"It is a way of acknowledging the victims' suffering as well as an evidence-gathering exercise," de Rivero said. "North Korea has denied most allegations of human rights violations are taking place and this will set the record straight."
South Korea, which says it is home to 25,000 North Korean defectors, will host the first set of hearings at Seoul National University from Aug 20-24.
U.N. staff there have begun screening potential witnesses, including former North Korean prison guards, who may prefer to give testimony in private, diplomatic sources said.
"LET THE WHOLE WORLD KNOW"
North Korea's best-known defector, Shin Dong-hyuk, and Kim Hye-Sook, another political prison camp survivor, are expected to publicly testify about hardships endured and executions witnessed during their decades of captivity, they said.
Shin told Reuters in June he would bear witness to the horrors of his life in Camp 14 to help build an eventual criminal case against North Korea's leadership.
"This is something I should do, let the whole world know the situation in order to help get rid of those camps," said Shin, 30, the only defector known to have been born in a prison camp and escaped.
The commission of inquiry has sought Pyongyang's permission to gather first-hand information in the reclusive state, where international rights groups estimate some 200,000 people are forced to work in mines, farms and factories as part of a vast system of labour camps.
A U.S. Christian missionary, Kenneth Bae, was sentenced in May to 15 years' hard labour after being convicted of state subversion. His sister said earlier this month he had been transferred to hospital.
The independent probe was set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in March at the request of Japan and the European Union, with the backing of countries including the United States.
North Korea is ignoring it.
"For the time being there is no sign of cooperation from their side," said Calandruccio, declining further comment.
A diplomatic source told Reuters: "Their policy is not to recognise the mandate. They treat it as if it did not exist."
At the Tokyo hearings on August 29-30, the U.N. team is due to interview relatives of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents over the years, diplomats said.
"It is a huge task, establishing the facts on crimes against humanity and accountability of the regime. It will increase international awareness of atrocities being committed in the 21st century which are systematic," the diplomatic source said.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)