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North Korean defectors seek more U.N. monitoring of abuses

By Emma Farge and Cecile Mantovani

GENEVA (Reuters) - North Koreans defectors spoke at a U.N. event in Geneva on Friday to expose human rights violations in a country one of them described as "hell" and to advocate for a strengthened U.N. mandate to investigate and document them.

The defectors came to the U.N. in Geneva where diplomats say the U.N. Human Rights Council will consider an EU-led motion to boost scrutiny by providing an update to a landmark 2014 report that found grave abuses constituting crimes against humanity.

Kim, a 33-year-old escapee who asked not to give his full name to protect those who remain, prepared his escape for 15 years and fled to South Korea by boat last year.

He took with him his pregnant wife and his father's ashes because he was afraid he would be punished as a traitor for escaping by disinterring his father's grave.

He told the U.N. meeting that authorities harassed him and confiscated his food and had barely enough to survive after COVID-19 era restrictions came in.

"I was so angry that I couldn't do anything in this country. I couldn't live in this hell," Kim told Reuters on the sidelines. "I stood on this stage with a hope that the North Korean government will allow my family and friends still living there to live a slightly more comfortable life."

Another defector Kyu Li Kim who escaped by swimming across the Tumen River to China in 1997 said she was worried that her sister might die after being arrested and sent back to North Korea from China last year.

"In 2003, my brother passed away in jail from starvation and severe punishment. I don't want my sister to die as my brother did," she told the meeting, saying they had lost all contact.

North Korea has rejected accusations of rights abuses and criticised U.N. investigations as a U.S.-backed scheme to interfere with its internal affairs.

Human Rights Watch, which is one of 20 civil society groups calling for a new U.N. report, says that China has recently forcibly returned some 500 people who had escaped North Korea and warned that they were at risk of being put in forced labour camps or even execution.

U.S. ambassador Michele Taylor who attended the meeting pledged support to the North Korean defectors: "I, for one, promise that I will use my voice to ensure that it was not without reason that you spoke today and that your pleas for help are amplified." She also called on China to uphold its legal obligations.

China said in October that there were no North Korean defectors in the country and that it had handled those who had entered illegally for economic reasons according to law.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Toby Chopra)