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UN rejects North Korea's 'honeyed words,' moves forward with human rights case

North Korean officials made a rare appearance to defend the country's human rights record at a UN event featuring the testimonies of North Korean refugees. The UN Security Council is considering referring North Korea's alleged violations to the International Criminal Court.

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    Kim Ju Song, a member of the North Korea delegation, attends a panel discussion on human rights abuses in North Korea at United Nations headquarters, Wednesday.
    Seth Wenig/AP
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"A few honeyed words" by North Korea as it tries to avoid a referral to the International Criminal Court has not changed the human rights situation on the ground there, the head of a U.N. commission of inquiry on the North told reporters Wednesday.

Michael Kirby then had a rare exchange with North Korean officials, who showed up and challenged the commission's work during a U.N. human rights event featuring testimonies from North Korean refugees.

"We can't let lies pass at the United Nations," Kim Ju Song, an adviser with the North's foreign ministry, said before the meeting began.

Kirby thanked the North Korean officials for coming, and he asked repeatedly to visit the country.

The pressure is on Pyongyang, with a new resolution before the General Assembly's human rights committee calling on the Security Council to refer the North's situation to the ICC.

It would be the global community's strongest effort so far to take action on the North's dismal, documented rights record of sprawling political prison camps, starvation and mass executions.

The commission of inquiry report this year placed the North's record firmly in the international spotlight, and its officials have been attempting what Kirby, a retired Australian judge, called a "charm offensive" to avert any moves toward accountability.

North Korea has made several surprising moves in recent weeks, including releasing its own glowing report on its human rights record and sending its foreign minister to address the annual U.N. General Assembly of world leaders for the first time in more than a decade.

But Kirby told reporters that actions speak louder than words.

During Wednesday's meeting, attended by a half-dozen North Korean officials, Kirby made three demands: Allow him to visit North Korea to debate the report, allow the report to be accessible in North Korea and delete language from Pyongyang's own human rights report describing the refugees who spoke to the commission of inquiry as "human scum."

In response, North Korean councilor Kim Song demanded, "You must make the report again in a fair manner."

After the meeting, as the North's officials gathered for a smoke, Kim Ju Song said Kirby could indeed come to North Korea, "if he's willing to cooperate."

Kim also offered a packet of documents and a DVD that he said would discredit the North Korean refugees who spoke at the meeting about their time in political prison camps. North Korean officials filmed them as they spoke Wednesday.

Kirby earlier told reporters that the United Nations is "about to face a moment of truth" with the General Assembly resolution. China, a top Pyongyang ally, could veto a Security Council referral to the ICC, but Kirby warned that it will have to "stand before the world" if it does.

"We continue to hope that China, as a great power, will act as a great power," he said. He said his commission spoke with the Chinese embassy in Geneva repeatedly.

Kirby pointed out that China has used its veto just 10 times since taking its permanent council seat as the People's Republic of China, and he said people shouldn't assume that China will use the veto now. "The veto is not basically the way China does diplomacy," he said.

China, however, cast one of six "no" votes earlier this year as the U.N. Human Rights Council approved a resolution that allowed a special investigator to keep investigating suspected crimes against humanity and other abuses in North Korea.

Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan, who chaired Wednesday's event, said the North Koreans realize that the international community is taking this seriously. "They know they have a problem," he said.

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