A U.N. panel has written to North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un warning him that he could be hauled before an international court for leading a regime blamed for committing rights abuses on a scale unparalleled in modern history.
The U.N. commission of inquiry of human rights abuses in North Korea said after a one-year probe that "hundreds" of leaders in the hard-line communist state, possibly even Kim, were behind massive human rights violations that amounted to crimes against humanity.
The head of the three-member panel, Michael Kirby, warned in a letter to Kim that he could face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague following the probe contained in an almost 400-page report made public Monday.
As head of state and overall commander of the country's military, Kim bears personal culpability for the crimes, Kirby said.
In the Jan. 20 letter accompanying the voluminous report, Kirby, a retired Australian judge, told Kim that international prosecution is needed "to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for crimes against humanity."
The number of North Korean officials responsible for such crimes "could be running into the hundreds," Kirby said separately.
The voluminous report, compiled after the panel's hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington, said that "systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed" in North Korea by "its institutions and officials."
In many instances, the violations "constitute crimes against humanity," it said.
"These are not mere excesses of the state; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded," the report said. "The gravity, scale and nature of these violations revealed a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."
Reminiscent of crimes committed by Nazis
Kirby told Reuters news agency that the crimes his panel had catalogued were reminiscent of those committed by Nazis during World War Two.
"Some of them are strikingly similar," he said.
The report explained that crimes against humanity in North Korea comprised "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
It cited evidence provided by individual victims and witnesses, including the "harrowing treatment" meted out to political prisoners, some of whom said they would catch snakes and mice to feed malnourished babies.
Others told of watching family members being murdered in prison camps, and of defenseless inmates being used for martial arts practice.
The U.N. panel's findings were based on testimony from 80 witnesses at four public hearings last year and more than 240 confidential interviews with victims and others.
The report estimated that there are 80,000-120,000 political prisoners in North Korea.
North Korea, as expected, completely dismissed the charges, saying the report was an "instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system" and defaming the country.
The rights violations listed in the report "do not exist in our country," it declared in a statement.
Pyongyang had refused to participate in the investigation and to give permission for the commission members to visit the country.
China to oppose ICC move
North Korea's key ally China said Monday it would oppose any move at the United Nations to refer North Korea's leaders to the ICC, calling for dialogue to resolve the rights problems.
"I myself haven't seen the report, but our relevant position is clear-cut on this: issues concerning human rights should be solved through constructive dialogue on an equal footing," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing, according to Agence France-Presse.
"To submit this report to the ICC will not help resolve the human rights situation in one country," she added.
The U.N. probe panel had warned China that its forced repatriations of North Korean migrants and defectors might amount to "the aiding and abetting (of) crimes against humanity."
But Beijing said the fact that some of the North Korean migrants regularly managed to get back into China after their return showed that the allegations of torture were not true.
Human rights groups welcomed the probe report, saying it was a landmark effort.
"For the first time, a United Nations body has recognized that the government of North Korea is committing crimes against humanity and that its leaders should be brought to account, " Roberta Cohen, co-chair of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) said in a statement.
"It is now up to the world community to take action to protect those persecuted and bring the perpetrators to justice," he said.
Nuclear threat overshadows rights abuses
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the "shocking" report should open the eyes of the U.N. Security Council to the "atrocities" that plague the people of North Korea and threaten stability in the region.
“By focusing only on the nuclear threat in North Korea, the Security Council is overlooking the crimes of North Korean leaders who have overseen a brutal system of gulags, public executions, disappearances, and mass starvation,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch.
Clearing referring to China, Greg Scarlatoiu, the HRNK's executive director, said "permanent members of the UN Security Council attempting to block action to establish accountability in North Korea will find that price to be increasingly higher over the long run."
The chances of Kim and other North Korean leaders being hauled to the ICC may appear slim over the short run.
Aside from the expected veto by China at the Security Council, the United States is also unlikely to actively support the move, although it fully backed the establishment and mission of the U.N. inquiry commission, Scarlatoiu said.
For one thing, it will be "considered politically counterproductive," as China will most probably veto the move at the Security Council, he said.
The other reason is that the United States is not a participant of the ICC as it has signed but not ratified the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the court, he said.