UNITED NATIONS (AP) — North Korean officials said Monday they met for the first time with a United Nations special investigator on human rights and "envisage" him visiting their country. A U.N. official confirmed the meeting.
A visit by a U.N. human rights official would be a breakthrough in international efforts to have a firsthand look at the way the deeply impoverished but nuclear-armed country treats its citizens. But the North's offer likely is another attempt to stop a growing international call to refer its dismal human rights situation to the International Criminal Court.
The U.N. special rapporteur is "very optimistic" about the possibility of a visit, "and very happy to hear from our side," Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of human rights issues, told The Associated Press shortly after the meeting.
Choe said no date had been fixed, but his country is looking for a "new and objective report" on North Korea's human rights situation. "Previous reports he has prepared have been based on rumors and fabrications, as well as distortions," he said.
The meeting comes a day before Marzuki Darusman presents his annual report on North Korea to the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee. An advance copy of his report, obtained by The Associated Press, "strongly urges" that the U.N. Security Council refer the country to the International Criminal Court over its human rights record.
Darusman could not immediately be reached Monday evening for more details.
The North has been on the defensive ever since a groundbreaking U.N. commission of inquiry report early this year laid out widespread abuses, including a harsh system of political prison camps holding up to 120,000 people.
Darusman, a former member of the commission, echoes the commission's call for an ICC referral by the Security Council. A resolution now with the General Assembly's human rights committee, drafted by the European Union and Japan, calls for the same.
A U.N. official said the North Koreans on Monday wanted the language about an ICC referral removed from the resolution, but they did not directly link that to the idea of a visit by Darusman. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
An ICC referral would be the global community's strongest effort so far to take action on the North's documented record of sprawling political prison camps, starvation and mass executions.
North Korea, long dismissive of conversation about its human rights record, has been feeling the pressure. In recent weeks, it has made a series of unusual gestures including releasing a human rights report on itself and drafting its own General Assembly resolution on its rights record.
The head of the commission, Michael Kirby, last week rejected the North's gestures as "a few honeyed words" and asked repeatedly in a rare face-to-face event with North Korean diplomats that both he and the commission's report be allowed into their country.
Darusman's report recommends using targeted sanctions against people in North Korea "who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity." The commission earlier this year warned leader Kim Jong Un in a letter that that could include him.
The report also encourages the U.N.'s 193 member states to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity in North Korea, "should any relevant individuals fall under the State's jurisdiction."
The report says such actions could act as a deterrent against further crimes.
An ICC referral is unlikely to get the approval of China, the North's most powerful ally and a veto-wielding Security Council member. "We think bringing human rights issues to the International Criminal Court won't help improve the human rights condition in a country," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last week.
But Pyongyang doesn't want the issue to make it that far.
Even if a referral is vetoed, the special rapporteur's report still calls for the Security Council to place North Korea's human rights situation on its agenda and hold regular meetings with Darusman about the "intrinsic links" between the country's human rights and the council's primary focus of peace and security.
Darusman is a senior Indonesian jurist who has served as the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea since 2010.