By Lesley Wroughton
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday called on North Korea to close its prison camps, saying their existence and the systematic torture, punishment and execution of people bring shame on the country.
"We say to the North Korean government, all of us here today, you should close those camps, you should shut this evil system down," Kerry told an event before U.N. meetings to highlight human rights abuses in North Korea.
"We simply cannot be blind to these egregious affronts to human nature and we cannot accept it. Silence would be the greatest abuse of all," he added.
The event, which included foreign ministers from South Korea and Japan, comes as North Korea sends its foreign minister, Ri Su Yong, to the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, the highest ranking official from the reclusive state to attend in 15 years.
Kerry referred to a U.N. panel report in February, which accused North Korea of crimes against humanity and said the slaughter of political prisoners over the past five decades might amount to genocide.
Pyongyang rejected the panel's report as lies and fabrications.
"North Korea's leadership may act as if it's impervious to our concern, as if nothing we can say can penetrate its self imposed isolation, and yet on some level North Korea's leaders do understand that their behavior brings shame on their country in the eyes of the world," Kerry said.
"No longer can North Korea's secrecy be seen as an excuse for silence or ignorance or inaction," Kerry added.
Kerry said the sentencing of Americans by Pyongyang to labor camps without a fair trial "is an unjust as it is irreprehensible."
North Korea is currently holding three Americans - Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae. Bae, a Christian missionary and tour operator, was arrested 18 months ago and sentenced to hard labor.
Washington has insisted that prisoners' release should have no strings attached and that talks on North Korea's disputed nuclear program should be a separate issue.
In a message to political prisoners held in prison camps across in North Korea, Kerry said: "You may be hidden but we can see you, we know you're there. Your captors can silence your voice and assault your dignity but they cannot deny your basic humanity."
Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the human rights situation in North Korea was a serious concern to the international community. "The international community needs to send a unified message," he told the event.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Tom Brown)