By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Japan and the United States called on Tuesday for the main U.N. human rights forum to launch an inquiry into allegations of violations including the torture and execution of political prisoners in North Korea.
The reclusive country's network of political prison camps are believed to contain at least 200,000 people and have been the scene of rapes, torture, executions and slave labor, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said last month.
She called for a international investigation into what "may amount to crimes against humanity" in "one of the worst - but least understood and reported - human rights situations in the world". North Korea dismissed the allegations.
Concerns about human rights abuses in the impoverished and malnourished country have persisted for years, but have been largely overshadowed in international forums by fears over North Korea's attempts to become a nuclear weapons power.
Japan and the European Union will submit a joint resolution seeking a inquiry, Japan's Toshiko Abe said in a speech to the Human Rights Council, which began a four-week session on Monday.
"Broad support of this resolution by the international community would send a stronger message to the DPRK," the parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs said, using the acronym for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Pyongyang has also failed to resolve the fate of many Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents, Abe said.
In theory, a team of international investigators could give sufficient legal grounds for the U.N. Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court.
China would be likely to veto such a referral, but building on accounts from defectors and refugees could create a dossier that is harder to dismiss than individual allegations.
Esther Brimmer, U.S. assistant secretary of state, backed the call for action by the 47-member state Geneva forum.
"The council's work remains unfinished so long as millions of North Koreans face untold human rights abuses amidst a daily struggle for survival," she said.
The resolution is likely to pass easily and it would be up to the council president to name a team of investigators.
The Geneva forum already has a independent U.N. special investigator on North Korea, Marzuki Darusman. In his latest report, the Indonesian lawyer said a wider inquiry should examine personal and institutional accountability for abuses including rapes, torture and executions.
On Monday, Britain's state minister Sayeeda Warsi voiced concern at the council at the abuses, especially at camps for political prisoners.
But her remarks, and those by senior officials from Poland and the Netherlands, drew fire from North Korea's delegation, which accused the Europeans of siding with U.S. policy.
"My delegation rejects the unsubstantiated allegations made earlier in the day by some EU members," Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean diplomat in Geneva, told the talks late on Monday.
Activists are lobbying for what they say is overdue scrutiny and hope that the resolution can be adopted by consensus now that neither Russia nor China are members.
"It would be the first time that the U.N. would be able to intervene to do a big investigation of systematic human rights violations and crimes against humanity in North Korea with a proper mandate," Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)