BEIJING — Torture, deliberate starvation and other abuses carried out by North Korean authorities — possibly on the orders of leader Kim Jong Un — are crimes against humanity and should be referred to an international court or tribunal for prosecution, United Nations investigators said Monday.
A 400-page report catalogs practices long cited by defectors and human rights activists, but their inclusion in a comprehensive document compiled by a U.N.-appointed panel appears to be unprecedented. It was accompanied by a three-page letter to Kim warning that under international law he could be held responsible for atrocities committed by underlings.
Release of the report could further inflame tensions ahead of annual war games conducted by the United States and South Korea. The Foal Eagle exercises, scheduled to begin Feb. 24, are an annual irritant to Pyongyang and often provoke threats of retaliation.
North Koreans and human rights advocates had hoped that a trend toward economic liberalization would accelerate after the December 2011 death of former leader Kim Jong Il and the succession of Kim Jong Un, Swiss-educated and still in his 20s at the time of his father's death.
However, the trend appears to have reversed, especially in recent months. The execution in December of Jang Song Taek, the leader's uncle and the most reform-minded in the top leadership, triggered a purge that has seen dozens of people, possibly hundreds, executed or summarily deported to prison camps. Some reports say that among the victims have been children who committed no offenses but were related to those accused of political crimes.
The report unveiled in Geneva by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea says that the gravity, scale and nature of the violations in North Korea over several decades do not have "any parallel in the contemporary world."
"These crimes against humanity entail 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 says.
The chair of the panel established by the U.N. Human Rights Council in March 2013, retired Australian Judge Michael Kirby, said the findings reminded him of the extensive horrors committed by Nazi Germany and other Axis powers, which were fully revealed only at the end of World War II.
"I hope the international community will be moved by the detail" in this report, which includes information from hundreds of witnesses, Kirby said. "Too many times in this building, there are reports and no action."
The document calls for urgent action by the international community, including referral to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Alternatively, it notes that the U.N. Security Council has the power to set up a special tribunal for North Korea.
Many observers believe that any attempt to take such action would be blocked by China, North Korea's neighbor and closest ally. China is a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council. The report chastises China for forcibly repatriating some North Korean refugees and for denying about 20,000 children born to North Korean women in China the ability to register for health and educational services.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, told reporters, "Submitting this report to the ICC will not help resolve the human rights situation in the relevant country.
"On the issue of human rights, we always maintain that issues concerning human rights should be solved through a constructive dialogue on an equal footing," Hua said.
The U.N. Human Rights Council is to consider the panel's recommendations at a meeting next month.
North Korea, in a statement provided to news agencies in Geneva, rejected the panel's findings. "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, Reuters reported.
Wu Haitao, China's ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva, said in a letter to the commission that the country did not support the establishment of the panel in the first place. He also reiterated China's position that North Koreans who enter China "do it for economic reasons" and "are not refugees," noting that some have committed crimes including "theft, robbery and illegal harvesting" in China.
The report estimates that 80,000 to 120,000 people remain in four large political prison camps in North Korea and notes that in late 2013 there "appeared to be a spike in the number of politically motivated public executions."
The investigators did note that "market forces" and "technological developments" were starting to bring "transformative socioeconomic changes" to the country, challenging traditional methods of social stratification and control.
The letter sent to Kim alleges that the abuses were carried out by state security officials, the army, the judiciary, the Ministry of Security and the Workers' Party.
"It is open to inference that the officials are, in some instances, acting under your personal control," Kirby wrote.
North Korean defectors interviewed recently in China and South Korea say that authorities have tightened regulations against traveling between towns and making phone calls to relatives abroad.
A 58-year-old truck driver from the outskirts of Pyongyang said that police had restarted arrests of people who watched South Korean movies — which are illegal but ubiquitous in North Korea — and closed the night markets, popular unregulated markets that helped working people earn extra money after hours. Many North Korean factories pay little or no salary and provide few food rations, leaving workers on a near-starvation diet if they don't have another source of income.
"It is horrible. I can't express it in words. People in North Korea eat things you would feed to dogs," said the truck driver, who escaped into China in August and who was interviewed last month in Yanji, near the border.
"When he got into power, Kim Jong Un said he wanted to improve the lives of people, but that hasn't happened," the man said. He said the young leader's main achievement so far has been to open a ski resort and water park and renovate Pyongyang's amusement park. "What good do amusement parks do us when we are starving?"
A 43-year-old North Korean woman who said she was released from custody in 2012 after serving four years for a failed defection attempt described sleeping in a room with 100 people.
"It was so crowded you couldn't sleep with your legs straight," she said. The woman, interviewed last month in a Yanji hotel room, lay flat on a bed because of back problems she said were caused by sleeping on a cold floor in a folded position.
"If somebody got sick, 10 or 20 would get sick and so many would die. They would take the bodies away in a truck. Women would pick up little pieces of human flesh that would fall from the bodies. You could use it as a medicine to put on burns and cuts or sometimes eat it."
The U.N. report does not list by name any particular officials that panelists believe should be held responsible, although the panel said it had a database of potential suspects.
The letter to Kim also drew attention to international criminal law, under which military commanders and civilian superiors can be held responsible for failing to prevent crimes against humanity committed by people under their effective control.
Kenneth Roth, executive director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said he hoped the report would "open the eyes of the U.N. Security Council," which he said had focused on the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang and overlooked "the crimes of North Korean leaders who have overseen a brutal system of gulags, public executions, disappearances and mass starvation."
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, welcomed the report, saying that it "clearly and unequivocally documents the brutal reality of [North Korea's] human rights abuses."
"We continue to work actively with our partners and with international organizations to raise awareness of and address the deplorable human rights conditions" in North Korea, she said.