By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Inmates in North Korea's prison camps suffered starvation and torture and described "unspeakable atrocities" comparable with Nazi abuses uncovered after the Second World War, U.N. investigators said on Tuesday.
Evidence in their report, swiftly rejected by Pyongyang, showed a disturbing pattern of human rights violations, said Michael Kirby, who chairs the independent inquiry.
The U.N. set up the inquiry into reports of abuses in March, following pressure by Japan, South Korea and Western powers to begin building a case for possible criminal prosecution.
Kirby said the preliminary findings were based on testimony from dozens of North Korean exiles, including former political prison camps inmates, given at public hearings in Seoul and Tokyo last month.
They were also backed up by satellite imagery of labor camps, he added. The team did not get permission to visit the country despite repeated requests.
"I believe you will be very disturbed and distressed by it and that you will have reaction similar to those of (U.S.) General Eisenhower and the others who came upon the camps in post-war Europe," Kirby told reporters.
The situation in North Korea was not "exactly analogous" with Nazi Germany, he said. But "an image flashed across my mind of the arrival of Allied soldiers at the end of the Second World War and the discovery of prison camps ... in the countries that had been occupied by the Nazi forces."
The independent inquiry would seek to determine which North Korean institutions and officials were responsible, he added.
"The commission listened to political prison camp survivors who suffered through childhoods of starvation and unspeakable atrocities," he told the U.N. Human Rights Council earlier.
Some were being punished for alleged crimes committed by relatives from past generations under a policy of "guilt by association" he said.
The report did not say what kind of prosecution might be considered. North Korea is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but the U.N. Security Council can ask the Hague-based court to investigate alleged abuses by non-signatories.
"POLITICISED ACCUSATIONS" - CHINA
North Korean diplomat Kim Yong Ho dismissed the inquiry as a "political plot" to force regime change in North Korea. It had been politicized by the European Union and Japan, "in alliance with the U.S. hostile policy", Kim told the Geneva forum.
"We will continue to oppose any attempt of regime change and pressure under pretext of 'human rights protection'," he said.
North Korea's main ally China, joined by Belarus and Syria, were among countries defending it during the 90-minute debate.
"Politicized accusations and pressures are not helpful to improving human rights in any country. On the contrary they will only provoke confrontation and undermine the foundation and atmosphere for international human rights cooperation," said Chinese diplomat Chen Chuandong.
Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in January that North Korea's political prison camps may hold 200,000 or more inmates.
Kirby told reporters on Tuesday that there appeared to have been "some degree of consolidation" of the camps, estimating that they may now hold at 100,000 inmates or so, but it was too soon to say why or what had happened to some of them.
"There does appear to be a fall-off in the number of camps. There may be a fall-off in the number of prisoners. But why exactly that is not entirely clear," he said.
One North Korean witness testified that he had been forced to "load the many corpses of prisoners who died of starvation, put them in a pot and burn them, scattering their ashes and remains on the nearby vegetation fields", he said.
Kirby, a former justice of Australia's top court, told the council: "I have been a judge for a very long time and I'm pretty hardened to testimony. But the testimony that I saw in Seoul and in Tokyo brought tears to my eyes on several occasions, including testimony of Mr. And Mrs. Yokota."
Their daughter Megumi Yokota, 13, vanished on her way home from school in Japan in 1977. She was one of 13 Japanese that Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader Kim Jong-un admitted in 2002 to having kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies. Pyongyang has said eight of them are dead, including Megumi.
One North Korean woman testified how she "witnessed a female prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket," Kirby said.
U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said in statement that the report's had "begun to shed light on the horrifying realities of life in North Korea and raise international awareness of the ongoing tragedy and barbaric conditions there".
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Heavens)