North Korea's Kim Jong-un may face charges over human rights atrocitiesN Korea's leader Kim Jong-un and his officials could be at risk of prosecution for ordering systematic torture, starvation and mass killings, following the publication of a UN report.
A UN commission of inquiry, headed by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, has released a 372-page report in Geneva detailing atrocities said to have been committed in North Korea.z
The investigators told Mr Kim in a letter that they were advising the UN to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), to ensure any culprits "including possibly yourself" were held accountable.
Hundreds of people who have escaped the country told of extreme deprivation and cruelty, especially in the prison camps housing up to 200,000 people.
The report details widespread malnutrition and starvation used against alleged opponents of the regime.
"The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," the report said.
Mr Kirby warned that words were not enough and it was time for the world to act.
He he said those responsible for crimes may face prosecution at some stage.
North Korea rejects report findings
North Korea has accused the commission of plotting regime change and has refused to accept any of its findings.
The country says it "categorically and totally" rejects the investigators' report, which it calls "a product of politicisation of human rights on the part of EU and Japan in alliance with the US hostile policy".
The South has welcomed the findings, saying "the report, which includes results of in-depth investigation showing the seriousness of the North Korean human rights situation, will raise the international community's awareness".
The unprecedented public warning and rebuke to a ruling head of state by a UN commission of inquiry is likely to complicate efforts to persuade the isolated country to rein in its nuclear weapons program and belligerent confrontations with South Korea and the West.
The UN investigators say they have also told Mr Kim's main ally, China, it might be "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity" by sending migrants and defectors back to North Korea, where they face torture and execution - a charge Chinese officials have rebutted.
As referral to the ICC is seen as a dim hope, given China's likely veto of any such move by Western powers in the UN Security Council, thoughts are also turning to setting up some form of special tribunal on North Korea, diplomatic and UN sources say.
"We've collected all the testimony and can't just stop and wait 10 years. The idea is to sustain work," one investigator said.
'Reminiscent of Nazi atrocities'
Mr Kirby says the crimes the team catalogued were reminiscent of those committed by Nazis during World War II.
"Some of them are strikingly similar," the former High Court judge said.
"Testimony was given... in relation to the political prison camps of large numbers of people who were malnourished, who were effectively starved to death and then had to be disposed of in pots burned and then buried... it was the duty of other prisoners in the camps to dispose of them."
Mr Kirby says the "suffering and tears" of the North Korean people demand international action.
"At the end of the Second World War, so many people said, 'if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces. If only we had known'. Well now the international community does know. The international community will know," he said.
The findings came out of a year-long investigation involving public testimony by defectors, including former prison camp guards, at hearings in South Korea, Japan, Britain and the United States.
Defectors included Shin Dong-hyuk, who gave harrowing accounts of his life and escape from a prison camp.
As a 13-year-old, he informed a prison guard of a plot by his mother and brother to escape and both were executed, according to a book on his life called Escape from Camp 14.
North Korea's diplomatic mission in Geneva dismissed the findings shortly before they were made public.
"We will continue to strongly respond to the end to any attempt of regime change and pressure under the pretext of 'human rights protection'," it said in a statement.
Regime used 'deliberate starvation'
The abuses were mainly perpetrated by officials in structures that ultimately reported to Mr Kim - state security, the Ministry of People's Security, the army, the judiciary and Workers' Party of Korea - according to the investigators.
"It is open to inference that the officials are, in some instances, acting under your personal control," Mr Kirby wrote in the three-page letter to Mr Kim, published as part of the report.
The team recommends targeted UN sanctions against civil officials and military commanders suspected of the worst crimes.
It did not reveal any names, but said it had compiled a database of suspects from evidence and testimony.
Pyongyang has used food as "a means of control over the population" and "deliberate starvation" to punish political and ordinary prisoners, according to the team of 12 investigators.
The report said pervasive state surveillance quashed all dissent, and that Christians were persecuted and women faced blatant discrimination.
It also said people were sent to prison camps without hope of release.
The investigators were not able to confirm allegations of "gruesome medical testing of biological and chemical weapons" on disabled people and political prisoners, but said they wanted to investigate further.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch says it hoped the report would open the UN Security Council's eyes to the scale of atrocities.
"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," Kenneth Roth, the organisation's executive director, said.
North Korea's extermination of political prisoners over the past five decades might amount to genocide, the report said, although the legal definition of genocide normally refers to the killing of large parts of a national, ethnic or religious group.