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SYDNEY (Reuters) - U.N. investigators will seek the cooperation of North Korea as part of an inquiry into allegations of widespread human rights abuses in the country but won't be deterred if Pyongyang refuses, the head of the investigating panel said on Thursday.
Michael Kirby, an outspoken former justice of Australia's top court, was named this week as head of a three member team that will look into allegations of torture, food deprivation and labour camps that are believed to hold at least 200,000 people.
The U.N. Human Rights Council launched the one-year inquiry on March 21, hoping to gather enough information from camp survivors and other exiles to document violations that it says may amount to crimes against humanity.
Kirby said in an interview he had received hundreds of emails from human rights groups and representatives of those alleging abuse by North Korea in the day since his appointment.
Contacting North Korean authorities would be "top of the list" of priorities, he said, adding he was hopeful of a response from the government and its strongest supporters in neighbouring China and Russia but that a lack of engagement would not stop the panel from completing its task.
"If they come forward - good. If they don't come forward, well, we will just get on with our job and do it within the materials and access we have. That's just common sense," said Kirby, who has previously investigated human rights abuses in Cambodia.
North Korea denies the existence of labour camps and activists do not expect it to cooperate with the investigation, having denounced it during a U.N. Human Rights Council debate.
The U.N. team would speak to North Koreans living in South Korea, Japan and Thailand, Kirby said.
"When the commission is up and running after the first of July, 2013 then we will start working through our methodology to consult and see as many as possible," he said.
Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called in January for an international investigation into what she said may be crimes against humanity, including torture and executions of political prisoners in North Korean camps.
The council unanimously passed a resolution brought by the European Union and Japan, and backed by the United States, which set up the inquiry.
Neither North Korea's closest ally, China, nor Russia are currently members of the 47-member Geneva-based council, and thus have no vote.
Diplomats have said the inquiry sent a message that the international community was not just paying attention to North Korea's banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Kirby will be joined on the committee by Sonja Biserko, a founder of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, and Indonesia's Marzuki Darusman, the U.N.'s current special rapporteur on North Korea.
Kirby said it was too early to discuss possible outcomes of the inquiry, such as whether it could lead to charges in the International Criminal Courts against any individuals.
"In the end, it will be the political branches of the United Nations that will be making the decisions on the report of the commission of inquiry," he said.
The inquiry is due to file an interim report by September, with a final report due by March next year.
Editing by Dean Yates