WASHINGTON (AP) — The leader of a U.N. commission of inquiry that found North Korea committed crimes against humanity said Tuesday that members of the panel are ready to go anywhere to talk to the North's government — but it refuses to engage.
Michael Kirby addressed a conference in Washington marking the anniversary of the publication of the commission's landmark report, which called for North Korea to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
North Korea on Monday demanded that the conference be scrapped, claiming the U.S. ignored its offer to attend and defend itself.
The State Department said the conference was a privately organized event, although a U.S. rights envoy is attending. It is being held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nongovernment think tank.
The U.S. restricts North Korean diplomats to traveling within a 25-mile (40-kilometer) radius of midtown Manhattan in New York, where they retain a diplomatic mission at the United Nations. They must request permission to go farther.
"I would be quite happy if they were down here. This is a public session," said Kirby, a retired Australian judge.
Kirby led the three-member commission, which included Indonesian former attorney general, Marzuki Darusman, who still serves as U.N special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.
"We have reached out to them. I will go anywhere, the members of the commission of inquiry, the special rapporteur will go anywhere to engage them but they won't engage with us except on very limited terms favorable to them," Kirby said.
Nuclear-armed North Korea has been on the defensive since the commission detailed vast rights abuses there, including a gulag holding more than 80,000 political prisoners. International pressure behind last February's report led the U.N. Security Council to place the issue on its agenda of matters of international peace and security.
The commission also wrote to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warning that he could be held accountable for crimes against humanity.
That enraged North Korea, which has repeatedly said the U.S., which sponsored the resolution that led to the creation of the commission, uses the human rights issue as a pretext to overthrow it.
"We are not guilty of any crime," North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Jang Il Hun told reporters at the United Nations in New York on Monday. He said North Korea would respond "very strongly" to Tuesday's conference.
Victor Cha, a former senior U.S. official and event organizer, said the North Korean call for the conference to be canceled "only ensured we were going to have it."
It was one of the few public events held in Washington on a day when the U.S. government was shut down by snow and many other events were canceled.
Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, did not directly refer to North Korea's anger over the conference. But he said with the intensified scrutiny over human rights, Pyongyang "feels increasingly compelled to respond to what's happening."
He said the government's failure to develop its economy and lack of international support also show it lacks legitimacy.
South Korean envoy Jung-hoon Lee said the U.N. commission's report had prompted a "sea change" in the world view on North Korea's rights record. He said Tuesday's conference was sending a message to Pyongyang, "if you don't relent, we won't either."
But Kirby said the Security Council had failed to support the commission's recommendation to refer the case to the International Criminal Court because of concern such a proposal would be vetoed.
He called for the council to seek a referral and if it was not passed, "those who stop accountability can answer before the bar of the international community."
Permanent council member China, which is North Korea's only major ally, would be likely to use its veto power. It is criticized in the report for its repatriation of North Korean refugees.