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GENEVA: UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Monday demanded an international probe into the alarming human rights situation in ultra-authoritarian North Korea, decrying more than a half-century of devastating abuses.

“It is time the international community took a much firmer step towards finding the truth and applying serious pressure to bring about change for this beleaguered, subjugated population of 20 million people,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a rare and strongly worded statement on North Korea.

Pillay lamented the “deplorable human rights situation” in North Korea, “which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere in the world.”

She acknowledged that there had been some hope that the change of leadership in the single-party state after the death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011 could bring change.

“But a year after Kim Jong-Un (Kim Jong-Il's youngest son) became the country's new supreme leader, we see almost no sign of improvement,” she lamented.

Pillay also cautioned that the international community had been so concerned about North Korea's nuclear programme and rocket launches that it had largely overlooked the situation of the population in the country.

Despite the country's almost total isolation, the UN human rights chief said the little information that has filtered out bore testimony to “a system that represents the very antithesis of international human rights norms.”

She described meetings with two survivors of North Korea's network of political prison camps, which are believed to hold at least 200,000 people.

“Their personal stories were extremely harrowing,” she said, listing rampant violations inside the camps, “including torture...summary executions, rape, slave labour and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity.”

The living conditions in the camps were “atrocious”, she said, describing an acute lack of food, medical care and clothing.

One mother told her how she had been forced to wrap her new-born baby in leaves to keep her warm.

The other person she met had been born into a camp, where he had spent the first 23 years of his life.

“He was not only tortured and subjected to forced labour, but, at the age of 14, was also made to watch the execution of his mother and his brother,” she said.

The widespread use of the death penalty is also cause for deep concern, Pillay said, noting that people in North Korea could be executed for “minor offences after wholly inadequate judicial processes.”

She also highlighted the still unresolved cases of Japanese and South Korean nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s.

“I believe an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst, but least understood and reported, human rights situations in the world is not only fully justified, but long overdue,” Pillay said.

Updated Jan 14, 2013 12:06pm

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