Human rights groups should try to build bridges with lawyers in North Korea – even though such efforts will almost certainly be rebuffed, the International Bar Association conference in Tokyo heard today. 

Michael Kirby, the retired Australian high court judge who headed the UN's commission of inquiry into the communist state, told the meeting of the IBA's human rights committee that lawyers 'should be reaching out' to the two official bar associations that exist in North Korea, even though 'they are going to refuse, time and time again'.

Offering free places to conferences might be a way to build person-to-person contact, he said. 

This would necessarily be a long-term project 'for when the cloud lifts' he said. 

Kirby read harrowing passages from his commission's hard-hitting report published last May.

They were corroborated by an escapee from North Korea, speaking under the name of 'Mr Lee', 'I have seen public executions, starvation, the deaths of children,' he said. 'In North Korea we are well aware of what is going on in the government but we have never heard of human rights.'

A leading British human rights barrister, Steven Kay QC of 9 Bedford Row, told the meeting that future charges against Pyongyang could include genocide as well as crimes against humanity.

This was the conclusion of an independent opinion by international firm Hogan Lovells in June this year, which identified genocide against three identifiable groups, defectors, the so-called ‘hostile class’ and members of proscribed religions.

Kirby defended his report's decision not to make accusations of genocide at this stage. ‘Our approach was to take the rule of law approach,’ he said. He hinted at difficulties with the 'very 1948' definition of genocide, which excludes attacks on political groups. 

‘We have so much evidence of crimes against humanity and that’s enough. That triggers the process of the [International Criminal Court] and that’s what we should be concentrating on.' 

A UN statement on North Korea is likely to appear by December – but could face a veto by China. Kirby said that this is not a foregone conclusion, pointing out that Peking had used its veto only 10 times since becoming a Security Council member. Using it to protect North Korea would fit badly with Chinese ambitions to play a role on the world stage, he said.  

More than 6,000 lawyers from around the world are attending the IBA annual conference in Tokyo.