UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A U.N. human rights investigator said Tuesday that he was surprised and gratified that North Korean officials raised the possibility of allowing him to visit their country, but the prospect of such a trip remains deeply uncertain because of demands the North Koreans made in exchange.
Marzuki Darusman said North Korea is insisting that a proposed U.N. resolution drop a recommendation that the North be considered for referral to the International Criminal Court over its human rights record. The special investigator said he conveyed this message to the European Union and Japan, which drafted the resolution, but that he would not be involved in any further discussions between the parties.
Darusman met with four North Korean officials on Monday, the first such encounter since the office of special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea was created 10 years ago. He said he was surprised when the officials mentioned the possibility of a visit, which 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. He said the North Koreans also floated the possibility of a visit by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
"It's quite a big jump for North Korea," Darusman said at a news conference. "It's a very pragmatic step they are taking."
But Darusman said the North Koreans made clear they want mention of the ICC dropped from the resolution "so that they would be in a position to issue an invitation."
The nonbinding resolution, which could be introduced to the U.N. General Assembly next month, would urge the Security Council to consider referring North Korea's situation to the ICC, as well as press for targeted sanctions. It doesn't name names but a U.N. commission of inquiry warned leader Kim Jong Un in a letter earlier this year that he may be held accountable for orchestrating widespread crimes against civilians.
Darusman said the North Koreans were upset about the mention of Kim because "it touches on the sanctity" of the leader.
An EU spokesperson did not discount the possibility of addressing the North's concerns.
"The objective of this text is to bring change to the human rights situation in the country, by which we mean real improvements on the ground," the spokesperson said. "It is with this objective in mind that the EU and its co-sponsors will look at any proposals made by the DPRK."
A Japanese official said the government in Tokyo has been made aware of the message conveyed by Daruman "but I cannot predict whether the resolution will be modified or not." The official said "our policy is for now unchanged" and Japan would continue seeking support from U.N. members for the resolution.
The officials both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on private discussions by name.
Darusman, who has been special rapporteur since 2010, said it is "out of question" for the resolution to drop calls for officials to be held accountable for human rights atrocities but he spoke of the possibility of "reformulating" the language. When asked whether that could mean dropping direct mention of the ICC he said, "it depends on how you formulate that."
The North has been on the defensive since the U.N. commission of inquiry released a harshly critical report accusing the regime of running political prison camps with up to 120,000 people and sponsoring abductions of South Koreans, Japanese and others.
That report recommended that the North's situation be referred to the ICC, something Daruman backed in the annual report he presented Monday to the General Assembly's commission on human rights.
Even if the Security Council were to take up the matter, China would likely veto any resolution that included a referral of its North Korean ally to the ICC. But the North Koreans have engaged in an unusually public diplomatic blitz to stop the idea from even reaching a vote.
Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of human rights issues, told The Associated Press on Monday that no date has been fixed for a visit from Darusman, 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.
Phones rang unanswered Tuesday at North Korea's U.N. Mission.
Associated Press writer Cara Anna contributed to this report.