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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and its allies are applying a new form of pressure on North Korea, already facing a tightening ring of United Nations sanctions over its nuclear and missile tests: tougher U.N. censure of Pyongyang's human rights record.
In a move human rights advocates say is long overdue, the European Union and Japan are circulating a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva calling for a formal commission of inquiry into North Korea's record.
The U.S.-backed move could, in theory, lay the foundation for referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for its system of gulag penal camps and other serious abuses.
More significantly, former U.S. officials and rights experts say, the action in Geneva is helping to break down a de facto separation of human rights and nuclear diplomacy in Western dealings with North Korea.
"Exposing the North's brutality toward its own citizens has not been a priority component of U.S. policy," Robert Joseph, the top State Department disarmament diplomat in the George W. Bush administration, told a U.S. Senate hearing on Thursday.
"In fact, concerns about how such exposure might affect the prospects for engagement with the regime have worked to place human rights atrocities in a separate box which is mostly neglected if seen as complicating higher order diplomacy," he said, in a view widely shared by the human rights community.
An informal draft of the EU-Japan text was circulated and discussed in Geneva on Friday. It calls for the U.N. Human Rights Council to set up a two-member commission of inquiry for a year to investigate systematic, widespread and grave rights violations in North Korea, diplomats in Geneva said.
Some Asian countries on the council are expected to call for a vote on the resolution in the final week of the four-week annual session, which ends March 22, the diplomats said.
Although there is no veto on the 47-member-state council, the absence of traditional North Korea allies China and Russia is seen as beneficial to a smooth negotiations.
North Korea has been the target of critical U.N. resolutions on its human rights record in Geneva or New York in each of the past 10 years and its prison camps have been the subject of tough reports from the independent U.N. special investigator on North Korea, an Indonesian lawyer named Marzuki Darusman.
But North Korea has vehemently denied all allegations and stonewalled U.N. investigators. And the U.S. policy focus for the past two decades has been not on human rights, but on Pyongyang's expanding nuclear weapons and missile programs that are the subject of multiple rounds of U.N. sanctions.
Frustration with nuclear diplomacy and increasingly belligerent North Korean words and actions have helped overcome concern that pressure on human rights would make the country more suspicious of the outside world.
"North Korea is a country where diplomacy hasn't worked on the nuclear issue and it has utterly and completely failed on human rights, for decades and decades," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for the U.S. group Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch and other international groups, as well as rights advocates in Japan and South Korea, in 2011 formed the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea to push for the inquiry and overcome U.N. inertia, Chinese obstruction and the reluctance of Tokyo and Seoul, he said.
"There's supposed to be a roadmap for when a country goes off the rails on human rights and it wasn't happening," Sifton said. "When a country obstructs, obfuscates and thumbs their nose, you're supposed to escalate."
Whether that escalation will have an impact remains unclear, because Pyongyang has never cooperated with previous rights inquiries nor has it even allowed U.N. rights specialists to visit the reclusive country of 23 million people.
Debates continue over whether a rights push will exacerbate the nuclear crisis and whether public shaming or quiet diplomacy is the best way to address what U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has called "one of the worst - but least understood and reported - human rights situations in the world.
"It's a difficult debate to resolve, but not calling North Korea on the carpet for its abysmal human rights record is not the way to go," said Bruce Klingner, a retired CIA North Korea analyst, now at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
A senior U.S. State Department official said the U.N. rights drive helps dispel North Korea's narrative that the small country is merely "standing up against the United States."
"The fact that you've got the Human Rights Council, a body of the United Nations, calling attention to its problems counters the North Korean argument," said the official.
One other potent feature of a resolution setting up a commission of inquiry is that it can only be disbanded after a country significantly addresses the problems, said Sifton.
"China and other countries can't trade this away and end the commission of inquiry because North Korea is cooperating on the nuclear issue," he said.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Warren Strobel and Todd Eastham