SEOUL - A UN panel will start hearing harrowing testimony from North Korean defectors on Tuesday in a move that will likely mobilise public opinion on abuses in the one-party state that comes at or near the bottom of most measures of freedom.
There are an estimated 150,000-200,000 people in North Korean prison camps, according to independent estimates, and defectors say many inmates are malnourished or worked to death.
The panel will gather evidence in the South Korean capital, Seoul, this week and then move to Tokyo to tackle the issue of abductions of Japanese citizens.
North Korea's best-known defector, Shin Dong-hyuk, and Kim Hye-Sook, another political prison camp survivor, are expected to testify publicly about hardships endured and executions witnessed during their decades of captivity, they said.
Shin told Reuters in June he would bear witness to the horrors of his life in a prison known as Camp 14 to help build an eventual criminal case against North Korea's leadership.
"This is something I should do, let the whole world know the situation in order to help get rid of those camps," said Shin, 30, the only defector known to have been born in a prison camp and who escaped.
This is the first time that the North's human rights record has been examined by an expert panel, although Pyongyang, now ruled by a third generation of the founding Kim family, denies that it abuses human rights.