GENEVA – The head of a new U.N. probe into suspected human rights abuses in North Korea said Friday it is examining ways to carry out its work even without Pyongyang's cooperation.
The probe's chairman, Australian retired judge Michael Kirby, said that there are approximately 40,000 North Koreans living outside of the country, some of whom might be able to provide useful information, possibly through the use of public hearings.
Investigators hope to visit North Korea before going to South Korea and Japan starting next month to interview North Korean exiles, looking for what Kirby described as "typical voices" with compelling stories.
Kirby and the two other members of a U.N.-appointed panel began their work on the investigation authorized in March by the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council. The investigation was recommended by U.N. special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, who is now one of the panel members. The third member is Serbian human rights campaigner Sonja Biserko.
The panel has been tasked to investigate -- with or without North Korea's participation -- what U.N. officials describe as suspected widespread and systematic violations of human rights in North Korea. A similar probe into Syria's civil war has proceeded with virtually no access to the country, instead relying on accounts from refugees.
The authorization comes from a resolution sponsored by the United States, Japan, and the European Union. It was based on Darusman's findings that the secretive Asian nation has displayed widespread patterns of human-rights violations that include prison camps holding at least 200,000 people, enforced disappearances of citizens, and using food to control people.
The probe is the culmination of a decade of U.N. reports and resolutions on North Korea, many expressing grave concerns about human rights violations. Also over the past decade, Darusman reported in February, the nation consistently declined to improve the situation and refused to cooperate with U.N. human rights officials seeking information or offering technical assistance.
In March, North Korea's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, So Se Pyong, ruled out cooperation with the investigation, which he said was a political meddling by "hostile forces" trying to discredit his nation's image and overthrow its socialist system.
Flanked by Darusman and Biserko, Kirby said the panel will continue seeking Pyongyang's cooperation until the end of its probe, but also will draw on publicly available records including satellite images.
"Obviously, it would be a whole lot better if we could go there, if we could see with our own eyes," he said. "If we can, we will do that. If we can't, then we will hope that our efforts will open a door, or open a door in some way, and if not, we will keep knocking on the door."