North Korean defector Jin Hye Jo tearfully told her family's story Wednesday to U.N. investigators during a public hearing in Washington, their latest stop in a globe-trotting effort to probe possible crimes against humanity in North Korea.
The U.N. commission, led by Australian judge Michael Kirby, says evidence gathered so far points to systematic and gross human rights violations. It is empowered to seek full accountability, although bringing perpetrators to justice remains a distant prospect.
North Korea's authoritarian regime, which denies any rights abuses and political prison camps, is not cooperating and has refused access to the investigators.
Jin is one of two defectors testifying at the public hearing at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The three-member panel has received evidence from dozens of others during hearings in South Korea, Japan and Britain. Kirby said it will present its final report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.
On Thursday, experts are expected to testify about North Korea's vast gulag, estimated to hold 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, and about access to food in the country, where hundreds of thousands perished in the 1990s famine and many children suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition.
Among the commission's various lines of inquiry, it is expected to probe the causes of the famine and to what extent it was due to natural disasters — as the authoritarian regime of then-leader Kim Jong Il claimed — or mismanagement.
Jin, 26, who has lived in the United States since 2008 and runs a charity for North Korean defectors, scoffed at the suggestion that the food shortages were due to natural causes, claiming that government officials drive BMWs and drink exotic whiskies while children die.
She recalled how the shortages became very serious in 1996 and she would return from school feeling dizzy from hunger. Her parents made clandestine trips north to China to get food. But her father was arrested and, according to a fellow detainee, was beaten and killed, although authorities claimed he was shot trying to escape.
The family's fortunes only got worse. In 1998, after Jin's elder sister went missing, her mother went to China to try and locate the sister. Jin, then age 10, was left with her grandmother and two younger siblings to care for their newly born brother. Because of the father's previous arrest, she said, the family was shunned by neighbors when they begged for food.
"My baby brother died in my arms because we had nothing to eat. Because I was holding him so much he thought that I was his mom, so when I was feeding him water he was sometimes looking at me, smiling," Jin said, weeping.
She said her grandmother and her 5-year-old brother also starved. The remaining family members fled to China, but were arrested several times and repatriated before gaining finally asylum in March 2008 with the help of Christian missionaries.
Rights activists criticize China for such deportations, saying it is a violation of a U.N. refugee convention that it is a signatory to. China claims the North Koreans are economic migrants. Jin gave a detailed account of beatings and torture inflicted by security officials both in North Korea and China.
While the U.N. commission's work has put a spotlight on the dire human rights conditions in North Korea — long eclipsed by international concern over its nuclear weapons program — it's not yet clear what actions the world body could take to punish the North.
Kirby told the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday that when the commission delivers its final report, "the international community will be obliged to face its responsibilities and decide what concrete action it will take" to protect the North Korean people.
The North is subject to tough sanctions because of its nuclear and missile programs, barring it from trading in weapons or importing luxury goods.
Even if the panel concludes crimes against humanity have been committed, a referral to the International Criminal Court appears unlikely, as it would require the approval of the U.N. Security Council, where China has a veto.