How do you investigate North Korean human rights abuses from afar?

On Tuesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council announced the three individuals who will lead the body's first-ever human rights investigation into North Korea. In an interview with the Australian broadcaster ABC, new panel member Michael Kirby, a former justice of Australia's high court, acknowledged the challenges facing the probe but added, "the media gives North Korea a hard time and that maybe or may not be justified. We just have to, as a judge would, decide the matter on the basis of the material that's given to us and report faithfully and honestly."

North Korea is infamously opaque -- a New York Times article on Monday about "the black hole of North Korea intelligence gathering" argued that U.S. "understanding of North Korea's leadership and weapons systems has actually gotten worse." And the outside world may know less about North Korea's gulags -- thought to hold roughly 150,000 to 200,000 people -- than its weapons capabilities.

Not only will North Korea not cooperate with the investigation (it has never admitted to the existence of its gulags), but it's very likely that no one from the United Nations will be allowed to enter the country to investigate. Even if they are allowed to enter, they won't be able to get anywhere near the gulags -- and perhaps won't even make it outside the capital city of Pyongyang.

So how does one investigate human rights abuses in North Korea from Geneva and Seoul? The answer's pretty simple: defectors and satellite maps.

The most comprehensive testimony on human rights abuses in North Korea comes from the NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which in April 2012 released its second report on North Korea's hidden gulags:

In addition to the testimony and accounts from the former political prisoners in this report, this second edition of Hidden Gulag also includes satellite photographs of the prison camps. The dramatically improved, higher resolution satellite imagery now available through Google Earth allows the former prisoners to identify their former barracks and houses, their former work sites, execution grounds, and other landmarks in the camps. The report provides the precise locations exact degrees of latitude and longitude-of the political prison camps that North Korea proclaims do not exist.

The problem is, North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world that some changes only become apparent months, if not years, after they occur. After defectors cross the Chinese border, for instance, it usually takes them years to be in a position to safely tell their stories. And satellite maps show buildings, but not people. The U.N.'s testimony will no doubt be extremely thorough,  but still woefully incomplete when judged by similar human rights inquiries. If, for example, North Korea were to shut down its gulags, how long would it take the rest of the world to discover they no longer exist?


Americans have been more interested in the Benghazi hearings than the Benghazi attacks

Liberal commentators have dismissed today's hearings on the Obama administration's response to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate  in Benghazi as a purely political exercise aimed at scoring points against the Obama adminsitration rather than bringing new information to light about the events in question. But the bad news for the administration is that the American public seems to be more interested in the politics of Benghazi than the actual event. 

Here's a quick Google Trends chart showing the intensity of searches for "Benghazi" in the United States over the last 12 months:

Searches during the actual attack last September rated a score of 24 out of 100 on Google's scale, whereas searches maxed out at 100 -- the highest possible score -- around Election Day last year, when the Romney campaign was criticizing the administration for covering up information about the attack. Interest peaked again during David Petraeus's testimony on Nov. 16 (shortly after his controversial resignation from the CIA), when the State Department's internal review was released in December, around Hillary Clinton's memorable testimony in January, and again this week.

I've heard some say that Benghazi is an inside-the-Beltway story of little interest to the general public. But I think it may actually be the opposite. Beltway types-- particularly liberals, but some conservatives too -- are ready for this story to go away, but the public is still very much interested, and conservative media outlets in particular have continued to beat the drum. The administration may grumble that senators are politicizing a tragedy, but for the public, this has always been a political story. 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images