WASHINGTON - 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 tearfully told her family's story today to U.N. investigators during a public hearing in Washington, their latest stop in a globe-trotting effort to probe possible crimes against humanity in North Korea.
The U.N. commission, led by Australian 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 at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The three-member panel has received evidence from dozens of others during hearings in South Korea, Japan and Britain. Kirby said it will present its final report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.
On Thursday, experts are expected to testify about 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 many children suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition.
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 United States 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.