• Female members of North Korea's military march in a parade. (File: AAP)
A North Korean defector has told of her family's harrowing ordeals as they faced starvation, beatings and death under the authoritarian regime.
Source:
AAP
31 Oct 2013 - 1:29 PM  UPDATED 31 Oct 2013 - 1:30 PM

Her father was tortured in detention in North Korea and died. Her elder sister went searching for food during the great famine of the 1990s, only to be trafficked to China. Her two younger brothers died of starvation: one of them a baby without milk, whose life ebbed away in her arms.

North Korean defector Jin Hye Jo has tearfully told her family's story to United Nations investigators holding a hearing in Washington. It's the investigators' latest stop in a globe-trotting effort to probe possible crimes against humanity in North Korea.

The UN commission, led by former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby, says evidence gathered so far points to systematic and gross human rights violations. It is empowered to seek full accountability, although bringing perpetrators to justice remains a distant prospect.

North Korea's authoritarian regime, which denies any rights abuses and political prison camps, is not cooperating and has refused access to the investigators.

Jin is one of two defectors testifying at the public hearing on Wednesday. The three-member panel has received evidence from dozens of others in hearings held in South Korea, Japan and Britain. Kirby said it will present its final report to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year.

On Thursday, experts will testify about the North Korea's vast gulag, estimated to hold 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, and about access to food in the country, where hundreds of thousands perished in the 1990s famine, and child stunting remains widespread.

Among the commission's various lines of inquiry, it is expected to probe the causes of the famine - and to what extent it was due to natural disasters - as the authoritarian regime of then-leader Kim Jong Il claimed - or mismanagement.

Jin, 26, who has lived in the US since 2008 and runs a charity for North Korean defectors, scoffed at the suggestion that the food shortages were due to natural causes, claiming that government officials drive BMWs and drink exotic whiskies while children die.

She recalled how the shortages became very serious in 1996 and she would return from school feeling dizzy from hunger. Her parents made clandestine trips north to China to get food. But her father was arrested, and according to a fellow detainee, was beaten and killed, although authorities claimed he was shot trying to escape.

The family's fortunes only got worse. In 1998, after Jin's elder sister went missing, her mother went to China to try and locate the sister. Jin, then age 10, was left with her grandmother and two younger siblings to care for their newly born baby brother. Because of the father's previous arrest, she said the family was shunned by neighbours when they begged for food.

"My baby brother died in my arms because we had nothing to eat. Because I was holding him so much he thought that I was his mom, so when I was feeding him water he was sometimes looking at me, smiling," Jin said, weeping.

She said her grandmother and her five-year-old brother also starved. The remaining family members fled to China, but were arrested several times and repatriated before gaining finally asylum in March 2008 with the help of Christian missionaries.

Kirby told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday that when the commission delivers its final report, "the international community will be obliged to face its responsibilities and decide what concrete action it will take" to protect the North Korean people.

The North is currently subject to tough sanctions because of its nuclear and missile programs, barring it from trading in weapons or importing luxury goods.

Even if the panel concludes crimes against humanity have been committed, a referral to the International Criminal Court appears unlikely, as it would require the approval of the UN Security Council, where China has a veto.