The United Nations’ human rights chief declared recently that the time had come for a “long overdue” investigation into what she called unparalleled rights abuses in North Korea. The probe, unprecedented in scope, could help establish whether the North’s leaders are committing crimes against humanity.

Navi Pillay’s January proposal has already drawn support from the United States. But the decision has proved sensitive in South Korea, where leaders remain divided over whether to confront the North or try to somehow reduce tensions with it, even after Pyongyang last week detonated an underground nuclear device.

South Korea’s support for the human rights investigation is critical, because farther-removed countries view Seoul as the leader on North Korea policy issues.

But the decision on the Commission of Inquiry, or COI, comes at a particularly delicate time for South Korea, where a conservative new president, Park Geun-hye, takes office this month, having vowed to both re-engage with the North and “improve living conditions” for its 24 million citizens. The looming decision on the investigation highlights a fundamental South Korean quandary: Engaging North Korea and pushing it on human rights, though both reasonable goals, are often at odds.

Other countries “should understand the sensitivities faced by South Korea” when speaking out about human rights, said Song Min-soon, who was South Korea’s foreign minister from 2006 until 2008 under liberal president Roh Moo-hyun. “Those countries, they don’t have a real need to sit down with North Korea. We do. The new South Korean government has a plan to talk with the North Koreans about denuclearization, economic issues. But if we lead efforts on the COI, that won’t happen.”

Park has blasted the North for conducting the much-anticipated nuclear test. But her incoming administration, according to analysts, is uneasy about scrapping any hope of civil ties with the North even before Park takes office. The nuclear test has only made South Korea’s decision on the U.N. investigation “more sensitive,” said one South Korean government official.

In the two decades of serious advocacy for human rights in North Korea — begun when defectors first started fleeing the country and telling their stories — little has changed inside the repressive police state, according to activist and government reports. It remains a crime in the North to criticize the government, watch a South Korean television show or leave dust on founder Kim Il Sung’s portrait. Those found guilty of crimes that Pyongyang considers grave are sent, often along with their parents and children, to prison camps in isolated mountain areas where they almost always stay for life.

Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 people, according to multiple human rights reports, are locked up in these camps, the deepest secrets of a secretive country.

The North says it is impossible for such rights violations to happen under its socialist system and views any discussion of its human rights as a “grave provocation” — something Park is likely to hear from Pyongyang if she backs the investigation, which could be voted on at the next U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in March.

But if Park opposes it, she will heighten frustration among activists and thousands of defectors in her country, including the several hundred survivors of political prison camps, who often accuse the South of being more concerned about the North’s weapons than about its people.

Since Pillay requested the investigation in January, South Korea has taken no official position on the proposal. Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which technically is responsible for the decision, declined to comment.

U.N. officials and human rights advocates, as well as one Park adviser, said they are cautiously optimistic that South Korea will ultimately back the inquiry.

“I think we will quietly support it,” said Ha Tae-keung, a National Assembly member with an interest in North Korea issues who advises Park’s transition team.

Other advocates say the nuclear test, coupled with the U.S. support for the human rights probe — announced last weekby the State Department — has caused a momentum shift among members of the Human Rights Council in favor of the inquiry, increasing the odds that South Korea ultimately will sign on.

South Korea, experts say, has paid more attention to human rights during the five-year term of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak — like Park, a conservative — than under Lee’s predecessors. Under Lee, the government increased funding for Seoul-based human rights groups and the country’s U.N. representatives began voting to support resolutions condemning mass-scale atrocities in the North, rather than abstaining.

But during Lee’s tenure, the South faced consequences from its relatively hard-line stance, with North Korea not only testing two nuclear devices but also launching three rockets and staging two fatal military attacks on its southern neighbor. In addition, the North regularly accused the South of human rights violations of its own, saying that people there live in “utter destitution.”

‘Harrowing’ stories

Rights advocates say the United Nations has waited too long to seriously address the North’s human rights record. Until January, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights — a position established 19 years ago — had never issued a statement devoted to North Korea. For nine years, “special rapporteurs” have been filing reports about conditions in the country, based largely on accounts from defectors, but those reports have no legal weight. The current rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman, works on a volunteer basis, helped by an assistant in Geneva.

The investigation would represent the most direct attempt yet to detail abuses, establishing a team of experts who would produce a “definitive take, or description, of what is taking place in that country,” said Darusman, who has come out strongly in favor of the investigation. The commission would not lead directly to criminal charges, but the panel could, in its report, recommend ways for the international community to respond, including the establishment of a tribunal, as happened after similar commissions on Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Until recently, Pillay, a South African, had shown no particular interest in pursuing abuses in North Korea. That changed after a December meeting with two prison camp survivors, whose stories Pillay, in her statement calling for the investigation, described as “harrowing.”

Japan has also signaled its support for the inquiry. But other of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s 47 member nations, including many in Europe, are wavering, voicing concern either about the cost or about interrupting their own programs of engagement with the North.

If the investigation comes to a vote — something that will happen only if enough countries signal support during ongoing, behind-the-scenes discussions — it would need majority backing.

Before the nuclear test, many involved in negotiations were convinced that South Korea would play the deciding role in influencing others. But Washington’s decision to support the effort could prove just as important, prompting other nations, “especially those on the fence, to come forward in support of the initiative,” said Roberta Cohen, co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

Inquiry a ‘necessity’

More than a half-dozen human rights groups in Seoul have spent weeks trying to sway their incoming government. One advocate, An Myeong-chul, secretary general of the Free the NK Gulag group, said he is compiling documents about a few individuals in the North’s prison camps, based on information from relatives who have escaped to the South. The documents detail the names of those in the camps, when they were taken and by whom.

An filled out one document of his own, giving information about his mother and two siblings, who were sent to a gulag in 1994, he said, paying for the crimes of his father, who had been stealing rice and then committed suicide.

An believes that his family members are still in a camp, but he isn’t sure. He calls the commission of inquiry a “necessity.”

“If Park Geun-hye wants to open dialogue with North Korea, accepting the COI might give the North an excuse to get upset,” he said. “But South Korea should be aware: There are prisoners in there, and there are survivors here.”

Anne Gearan in Washington and Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.